It seemed early for the yellow jackets to be so aggressive and numerous in the last week of July and early August of 2001. There seemed to be much too many of them, and every day I was hearing about more and more people getting stung. I’d sit on the porch eating lunch, and they’d want their share. For no apparent reason my mother got stung and later in the afternoon a camp counselor who was just standing in place watching her campers got stung.
Again in 2005 it was unusually hot in May and by July the yellow jackets became aggressive, and their rampage on us innocents began. Usually, they don’t get aggressive until early in the fall, but then all it takes is one frost and they’re dead, except for the queen. Will these wasps be on the rampage again this year?
Yellow jackets don’t overwinter, except for the queens. They emerge in late April or early May and lay a brood nest that has 30 to 50 cells in it. The queen feeds her brood for about 18 days when small infertile female workers emerge. By mid-June the adult workers emerge, expand the nest, nurture the young and tend to the queen and nest defense. By late summer the colony can be as large as 4,000 to 5,000 workers who tend to as many as 15,000 cells and at this point new males and females are produced. The males become extremely aggressive as the competitive environment heightens and at the slightest provocation — even the movement of an arm or leg — we get stung.
So what’s been the similarity in the noted years? The early-spring heat waves stimulated the hive growth and shortened the reproductive timing of the nests and nearly a month to six weeks early the aggressiveness associated with high populations and tight quarters translated into attacks on us poor souls and even our pets. We still don’t know if the recent heat wave will have this effect on this year’s brood.
Now I’m sure that most of you are familiar with the problems associated with bee stings. Some of us just get an annoying itch that goes away in a couple of days. But for about 1 percent of the population the sting and associated venom can be deadly. This deadly reaction can take place within minutes or as long as two days later. With bees, though, we do get a small amount of revenge. Bees have barbed stingers, and once they sting the stinger is left behind and the bee dies. Not so with yellow jackets (which are wasps, not bees). Their stingers are not barbed, and as a result one yellow jacket can sting repeatedly, making them that much more dangerous, painful and, to some, potentially deadly.
Gardeners are especially at risk at this time of the year because yellow jackets, which normally feed on other insects (and are therefore considered to be beneficial) go through the above noted personality change. No longer content with munching on other bugs, they become attracted to a number of new stimuli and foods, including soft drinks, candy, sugar and just about any food that you take on a picnic. In addition, it seems that the one color that really sets them off is yellow, which, by the way, is almost a universal attractant for insects that work by daylight. But come late summer, these wasps just can’t resist yellow clothing and yellow tennis balls.
In addition to the color attraction, the yellow jackets develop a sweet tooth. Suddenly, no picnic is safe from their curiosities as they seek out cans of soda and desserts, and while in the garden they can’t resist a ripe pear, plum, cantaloupe, bunches of sweet ripening grapes or an apple fallen to the ground. They’re also attracted to many perfumes and colognes so even out of the garden beware.
Resist the need to shoo them away or swat at them because it is exactly these sudden actions that sets them off in their stinging mission. They have nothing to lose anyway since they’ll be dead come the first frosts of fall.
Yellow jackets should not be confused with the common garden variety of honeybee or bumblebee. Our garden bees primarily feed on pollen, and they are extremely reluctant to sting us. Only under severe provocation will bees become aggressive, and they’re not interested in your ripe fruit, soda, dessert or perfume.
Yellow jackets, like bees, are social insects. They produce a queen in the fall that mates and overwinters under a rock or under some bark. The balance of the family — the drones, workers and males — all die by our first hard frost. In the spring, the queen emerges from her winter sleep and starts building a new nest. Soon her first brood emerges from the small nest and the workers from this brood begin expanding the nest. The nests can be found in the ground, in hollow trees or on the sides of buildings, in attics and even under porch umbrellas. If you were to mow your lawn over a ground nest in early spring, the wasps will simply flee and begin nesting elsewhere. Later in the summer though, if you pass your mower over a nest, the “guards” will rush out and assault you.
You can’t defend yourself against yellow jackets with repellents because these chemicals deter only insects that are after our blood. Wearing white or light-colored clothing other than yellow can help and we also know that these wasps are more likely to go after a sweaty person as opposed to someone who’s recently showered.
If you’re picnicking, try not to leave food uncovered, stay away from garbage cans and dumpsters and clean any spills off your table. In the garden, don’t leave ripe or bruised fruits on the ground and look before you pick.
If a wasp comes near you and you want to protect yourself, slowly raise your hands to protect your eyes and begin to very slowly back away. Since they fly at about 8 miles an hour you can’t outrun them — so don’t even try. By the time you turn to run the yellow jacket can get so agitated that you might be stung four or five times in your first few fleeting steps. It’s also thought that wasp venom contains a signaling pheromone that attracts and signals other wasps to attack, thus the stories of people being inundated and overwhelmed by hundreds of wasps in a single attack.
While there are yellow jacket traps, consider these two things before you buy them and set them out: First, with up to 15,000 wasps in a colony, you will capture only a small number of the total population. In addition, if your traps are not properly placed you may actually end up attracting them closer to your living space instead of getting rid of them. If you are having an outdoor event at this time of the year there may be some benefit in setting out traps for temporary control, say for a party or picnic.
Secondly, there’s anecdotal information that when yellow jacket trapping is done near a vegetable garden or fruit trees there is a noticeable increase in the populations of other harmful insects that the yellow jackets would have eaten.
Yellow jacket nests are hard to eradicate, and this should be attempted only in the evening when it’s cool. Better yet, call a professional exterminator.
In the end the only advice I can give you is to be ware. If you are sting sensitive, you should speak with your doctor who can advise you on the proper steps to take to protect yourself. If you are not allergic to stings and get stung, you might want to immediately put ice on the sting site then seek out a sting treatment from a pharmacy. Keep growing.