...Yellow Jacket Season
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
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
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",