Wasp attacks make co-existence a challenge in the tea plantations
All isn’t well for the estate worker in the Hill Country – the land of tea. Reaching out to every tea bush on the mountainous terrain amidst nasty leech bites and threats from leopard and wasp attacks is a fraction of the effort that goes into making the perfect cuppa. So far, four people in the Hill Country have succumbed to wasp attacks while 800-900 of them have been hospitalised; just for this year. These include people in areas such as Aborsely, Dayagama, Agarapathana, Bogawanthalawa, Mount Vernon and Talawakelle. According to a research conducted by Keerthi Kularatne et al, the lesser banded hornet (Vespa affinis) is widely present in Sri Lanka and is behind the highest number of deaths related to Hymenoptera stings. However environmental groups in the Hill Country claim that felling trees and frequent bushfires result in endemic species losing their habitats. But this doesn’t mean that wasps should be eliminated as they play an important role in maintaining ecological balance.
Personal protective gear
Little efforts are being taken to save tea plantation workers from wasp attacks. During a recent visit to the Hill Country, the Daily Mirror met Sustainable Development Network’s (SDN) co-founder S. Kingsley Gomezz and Chandralekha Kingsley who recently introduced protective gear to be given away to estate workers. “We are a group of Government servants who are empowering single mothers, sex workers and vulnerable individuals in the society. We basically coordinate relief given to them by the government. One of our initiatives has been to introduce personal protective gear to estate workers to protect them from wasp attacks. One of the main causes of death during a wasp attack is because wasps sting the head. Therefore the gear includes a protection hat and protection is twofold – one is that wasps will not sting and due to the padding it will give less weight to the head.
Wasps also build their nests on tall trees and usually get disturbed by eagles. But the eagles fly away and wasps in turn fly downward an attack people
It only took Rs. 1500 to make this costume. These women have to deal with the weight and it will give them prolonged issues. They have to climb uphill with this weight and it usually gives them unbearable headaches. Even this basket is heavy. The other part of the kit includes a jacket and a wrap around lower-piece. Older women usually wear a gunny bag, a skirt and a polythene and tie them together with a string. While this is quite warm, tying the layers together with a string will give rise to health complications in women. Apart from older women there are young girls working in estates too. So we brought about a change in their dress code by introducing a bottom. Wasps sting the face as well and therefore we have a head piece with a face cover attached to the jacket. It’s a 90% protective gear without shoes. Thereafter we modified the dress according to workers’ suggestions. Public opinion and ideas should be sought before change is made. This is a successful product. We then gave the costume to the Government agent and even the wildlife department has accepted that it provides 100% protection.” said Gomezz and Chandralekha.
The duo further observe that felling trees and setting fire to forests, which is frequently done in the Hill Country, are other causes for endemic species to lose habitats. “Wasps build their nests in silent areas and some of these nests are also found under tea bushes. But workers don’t see the nests when they pluck tea in the mountainous terrain. Wasps also build their nests on tall trees and usually get disturbed by eagles. But the eagles fly away and wasps in turn fly downward an attack people,” they said.
The Daily Mirror also learned that estate medical officers aren’t qualified to administer vaccinations on people. Therefore a nurse cannot vaccinate them. As a result SDN has also requested all estate medical centres to be taken under the purview of provincial medical units or Central Government line ministries.
Dearth of emergency medical care in estates
According to Dr. J. Arul Kumaran, Medical Officer-in-Charge, Base Hospital, Dickoya when a person experiences a wasp sting he is given I.V Hydrocortisone, I.V Chlorpheniramine and I.V Adrenaline. “Patients usually die of anaphylaxis where they experience low pressures, shortness of breath and an oedema forms. Some of the issues faced by the estate workers is that there are no first aid facilities. There are primary healthcare centres in Upcot, Hatton and there are estate medical assistants. Usually they can’t administer injections. We need an ambulance with a driver. It takes time to reach the nearest hospital and therefore an ambulance is a must. It’s best to have a central dispensary with state intervention. If someone experiences a heart attack there’s no way to give treatment nor is there a place to take the patient. It would be good if we have more 1990 ambulances for the estates. If a wasp sting is not treated properly people may experience renal failure and respiratory arrest,” explained Dr. J. Arul Kumaran.
No insurance for victim’s family
55-year old Alima Cassim was one of the victims of a wasp attack in June. She died while undergoing treatment at the Lindula Divisional Hospital. However her husband was unable to obtain insurance. “Her father’s death certificate had been misplaced and without that I can’t claim insurance,” he told the Daily Mirror. Alima’s family resides in a small neighbourhood at St. Coomb’s Estate, Talawakelle. With regard to compensation for members of these families, who fall victim to wasp attacks, is something that estate managements and ‘caretaker’ trade unions need to consider.
A HORNET’S ROLE IN AN ECOSYSTEM
According to National Geographic, wasps (belonging to the Hymenoptera order) make an enormously diverse array of insects with some 30,000 identified species. They are divided in two primary subgroups including social and solitary wasps. Social wasps account for around a thousand species and include formidable colony-builders including yellow jackets and hornets. According to a study done on hornet stings by Buddhika Wijerathne et al,. it has been found that the lesser banded hornet (Vespa affinis), the black bellied hornet (Vespa basalis), the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) and the greater banded hornet (Vespa tropica) are the documented species of hornets found in Sri Lanka. All these species are a distinct genus of social wasps. Among them, Vespa mandarinia is the largest hornet capable of injecting the most amount of venom and is responsible for many of the systemic reactions. Hornets consume tree sap, but are also accomplished predators. The hornet hive is known to eliminate flies, bees and other insects. Hives are constructed by chewing wood into a papery construction pulp.
One of the main causes of death during a wasp attack is because wasps sting the head. Therefore the gear includes a protection hat and protection is twofold– one is that wasps will not sting and due to the padding it will give less weight to the head
Kingsley Gomezz and Chandralekha Kingsley
They mature from egg to adult inside the community hive. Queens dominate hornet hives and are the only females to reproduce. Most other hornets are asexual female workers that perform essential community duties such as building the hive, gathering food, feeding the young and protecting the colony. Males are few and their only role is mating. They die soon after their sexual task is complete. They do not sting humans unless provoked and they would defend a nest aggressively if they feel it is threatened. However hornets are known to serve an essential function to fruiting and flowering plants. As they travel from plant to plant, hornets also pollinate the flowers. Without hornets, pollination wouldn’t occur at the same rate stunting that year’s growing cycle and affecting the food chain.