Minutes after Auckland man Rob Wallace told his teenage son to go outside and check out a wasp nest he had just disturbed, he was lurching incoherently across the room.
Then he collapsed. Blood splattered across the bathroom and the door was ripped off its hinges.
It was, said Wallace's wife Sandra King, "like someone had been massacred in the bathroom".
Wallace, 46, was using a weed trimmer two weeks ago at the family's lifestyle block in Waimauku, northwest Auckland, when he bumped an underground wasp nest so big it ballooned slightly above the tussocky grass.
In his earmuffs and visor, Wallace didn't realise he was being stung until he felt hot and saw a swarm of wasps around his head. He called son Morgan outside to have a look, then walked to the house, disoriented and nauseous.
Wallace had been stung by wasps before and had previously killed a nest on the family's 2ha section by pouring petrol down a hole in the ground. He'd never had an allergic reaction to anything. He weighs 100kg and is physically fit. There was no sign on his skin of being stung. But when he started slurring his words and acted as if he were drunk first lying on his bed, then wandering into the bathroom he realised things were wrong, and told his son to telephone for an ambulance.
Morgan, 19, called his mother, who was out shopping, and told her to come back, and then he dialled 111. Seven minutes after the wasp attack, Wallace's pulse stopped and he was barely breathing. His eyes rolled back and he was foaming from the mouth. His head was bloody from his fall. Morgan started chest compressions, which he'd learnt during outdoor education training.
"At that point I thought he was dead," he said.
King arrived. "She was just comforting him," Morgan says. "She thought there was nothing we could do any more. We both thought he was going to die."
Ten minutes after the wasps attacked, emergency services arrived, gave Wallace oxygen, injected him three times with adrenalin, and raced him to North Shore Hospital.
Emergency medicine specialist Dr Kim Yates says Wallace's blood pressure got so low that blood stopped flowing to his brain. "It was as close to dying as you get."
Several hours later, after antihistamine injections and steroids to prevent a relapse, Wallace regained consciousness and started speaking clearly.
Now feeling "worn out and weary" but lucky to be alive, he's waiting for the result of an immunity test to tell him if his reaction was caused by the sheer volume of stings, or if he has an allergy. If he's allergic, a single sting could kill him because his body is now sensitised. He takes antihistamine tablets and an adrenalin auto-injector everywhere, even to pick up the groceries.
When pest exterminators destroyed the nest which measured a metre wide by a metre deep the family watched a massive black cloud of wasps from behind a window. Wallace says he's staggered that they nearly killed him.
"To think in New Zealand that we've got killer wasps... it's nuts, it's bizarre. Even after I've been through it, I can't believe it."
Experts warn that now is peak season for wasps and if disturbed the German and common wasps New Zealand's most dangerous varieties will chase a perceived intruder in swarms of thousands. It was German wasps that attacked Wallace.
It's sometimes said that wasps go for the colour blue, and attack a person's head and shoulders because they know that's where people are vulnerable. But Landcare insect ecologist Darren Ward says this is rubbish.
"Bees and wasps are attracted to different colours because of flowers and patterns on flowers. They get frenzied because people generally wave their hands in the air when they see one close, which annoys them, and coloured shirts and hats are generally on the head and shoulder area, so that's why they approach this area."
German and common wasps live mainly in rural and coastal areas, but aren't unheard of in cities. Their nests are underground, often in long, tussocky grass, or in trees, logs and rock cavities, under houses and in ceilings.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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