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September 4, 2023 by Sue Ercolini - Views: 66

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Yellowjackets on trout

Gardeners, children and pets BEWARE…it’s that time of year!  And yellowjackets (also spelled yellow jackets) are hungry and cantankerous in the fall due to less food.  Now, I know that you all have heard stories about unfortunate individuals cutting their lawns and accidentally running over yellowjacket nests!  My story is similar.  I was crawling around on my hands and knees, weeding under bushes, moving quickly, and not really paying attention to anything except getting rid of weeds.   That’s when it happened!  I felt discomfort, to say the least, around the calves of my legs. When I stood up I saw at least 20 or so yellowjackets attached to my jeans.  Not knowing a lot about these wasps, I swatted them…wrong thing to do!  Did you know they have a defense mechanism, pheromones, that summons more yellowjackets?   Suddenly, there were yellowjackets everywhere emerging from the ground…I was defenseless.   So, I took off running to our pool about  a 100 feet away, all the while being stung.  I jumped into the deep end of the pool, boots and all, and held my breath as long as I could before coming up for air.  Oh, no, they were still there buzzing around the water ready for another attack.  Back under water I went and the next time I surfaced, they were gone. 

Fortunately, for most of us these lessons of nature come from quiet observations or stories like mine.  Sometimes they come in a wild and painful frenzy. The kind you never forget!  But the fact is from 2011 - 2021, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention logged just 788 deaths from hornets, wasps and bee stings (an average of 72/year).  But with our ever changing climate, winters are not as cold or long.  Therefore, nature has less control over the yellowjacket population and this fall you may see many more of them than in past years.  

Fern with yellowjackets

Yellowjacket on trout 
looking for protein

Yellowjackets are a social wasp living together in harmony… a successful lifestyle for surviving and thriving.  In the spring, some yellowjackets start a nest in the ground or a cavity of a tree, hollow log, snake hole or even in your favorite flower pot, while others prefer life above ground by building a structure hanging from a tree branch or the eaves of your home.  In both cases the queen chews on pieces of fallen trees mixed with her saliva to build a papery nest where she cares for her young, all females, until they are old enough to serve as the first worker generation.  Once the first workers mature, the queen remains at the nest and limits herself to egg laying, while the workers take over everything else.  The colony continues to grow from spring to fall with workers foraging for food and feeding the young.  These workers fuel their bodies with sugar from various sources like honey bee hives, hummingbird feeders or soda cans left uncovered.  However, the larvae need  protein to grow.  So, the workers hunt for caterpillars, crickets, spiders and other sources of animal protein like your tuna salad sandwich to provide nutrients for the larvae.  

In the fall, the queen begins to lay eggs that will become new males and queens.  These are considered reproductive wasps that when mature will mate.   The new fertilized queens will prepare to find shelter and hibernate for the winter until they thaw out in the spring and start a nest of their own…the males die after mating.  The old workers and queen from the original colony will die when freezing temperatures arrive.    Come spring, the life cycle of the yellowjacket begins again.

Yellowjackets are often mistaken for honey bees due to the similarities in their coloring – yellow and black stripes around their abdomen.  However, they do not have hairs like bees do.  Instead, they have hard, glossy bodies with long, dark wings.  They say yellowjackets are normally slow to sting, but they are very territorial.  If the entrance to their nest is disturbed, they will become aggressive!!!  And, when provoked they will sting often, over and over, and summon many friends to the fight!   Their sting is much more painful than a honey bee that can only sting once and dies.  If you want to get rid of a nest, it’s best to wait until dusk or after dark when they are less active.  Most of us have our version on how to eliminate a nest...chemical controls, gasoline, moth balls, ice, peppermint, exterminators, etc...that´s up to you.  But the good news is the nest will never be used again!  

I recently found a nest while watering ferns in a large flower pot next to our garage... several yellowjackets flew out.  And, one cantankerous wasp managed to sting me on the end of my nose…not the face, please!   I was trying to save the ferns but my conclusion after spraying 6 times with ´wasp and hornet´ spray to no avail…they can have the dang fern! ■


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