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  The Adventurous Gardener*  

...Yellow Jacket Season
Lori Hubbart

Those vicious black and yellow dive bombers are back again!  People call them "meat bees" or "ground bees", but yellow jackets aren't bees at all, they're hornets -- members of the wasp family.  These fearsome creatures do eat meat, though, and they often live underground.

Yellow jackets have many amazing traits, and can be fascinating to watch, as long as you see them first.  Coming upon a nest of yellow jackets unawares can really ruin you day.  They defend their colony with a vengeance, stinging repeatedly, and seem to inject a chemical that signals "VICTIM, STING HERE" to their nestmates.

Members of the genus Vespula, yellow jackets build a many-chambered nest of wood pulp paper in a dark cavity, like a abandoned rodent burrow or a hallow tree stump.  During spring and summer, they search for carrion -- which is why they are always trying to snag a bit of hamburger or hot dog at picnics.  They carry the meat back to the nest to feed their larvae.  Adult yellow jackets live on flower nectar, but as summer wanes, their appetite for sugars ramps up, and they seek out fruits and soda pop.

Yellow jackets are among the very necessary scavengers of this world, performing the same services as vultures and ravens, but on a smaller scale.  Little animal corpses won't have time to breed diseases or stinks with yellow jackets around to pick the bones clean.  Sometimes, though, yellow jackets go in for live prey.

When we were cutting up an old log, it turned out to be rotten and full of termites.  No sooner had we exposed the fat, white termite grubs to the light, than a troop of yellow jackets arrived.  They stung the helpless termite larvae, seized them and flew off with them, looking very like the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

If you can possibly leave a yellow jacket nest alone, by all means do so -- they are very much a part of the local ecology, after all.  They feed on pest insects and provide food for various mammals, in addition to their services as scavengers.  However, hornet nests in the middle of the garden, or where children play can be just too much to put up with.

The least toxic way to deal with them is to wait until dusk, when they are mostly settled down in their nest, and pop a heave ceramic or glass bowl over the opening.  This only works on flat ground, of course.  There is just one entrance to the nest, and when the insects are trapped, they cannot dig their way out, and they die after a few days.

Yellow jackets nesting on hillsides or in hollow stumps are more difficult to squelch.  If you want to avoid the toxic, long-distance insecticide sprays, try to find a pest control company that follows a least toxic-method philosophy.

To keep yellow jackets away from outdoor eating areas, divert them with special traps.  These are baited with a powerful synthetic chemical attractant (wear rubber gloves when handling, or the hornets may be attracted to you!) that lures the insects into a chamber from which they cannot escape.

You might get lucky enough to see a raccoon pry the lid of a trap and stuff the live yellow jackets into its mouth.  Either the raccoon eats them faster than they can sting, or else some animals are immune to the venom.

Raccoons, skunks and other animals play a role in the demise of yellow jackets as summer wanes.  These foraging mammals will dig down into yellow jacket nests at night and devour the whole colony.  You might see the remains of such a repast, with bits of paper nest chambers strewn about.

If not done in by humans or other predators, yellow jackets will die off naturally with the coming of the rainy season.  Only the queens will overwinter, and they can sometimes be seen hiding in dark corners, waiting to establish a new nest in spring.

Given the inevitability of yellow jackets, let's try to cultivate a sharp awareness, but also a tolerance of them.  After all, we coast dwellers need a pestilential arthropod as a subject for tall tales, and yellow jackets will do just fine until tick season gets underway.

*Lighthouse Peddler, Issue #35, September, 2004, "A Little Newspaper By The Edge Of The Sea", 707.882.4001.

Articles supplied by Walter Spille from mentioned supplier and Information

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