It was a vision from a horror movie. The kids had formed a wide circle, backing away in disbelief as a growing gang of bee-sized yellow jacket wasps crowded over a can of soda. Screams and shrieks from fifth graders at the Nature Center picnic area had drawn me to this scene. You’d think tiny terrorists had taken over the table.
This is known as the “interpretive moment.” I reached over and very slowly and carefully picked up the root beer can, yellow jackets and all. It looked like some creepy scene from “The Mummy” as fearsome, feisty, and detested sting mongers crawled through my fingers, over my hand, and up and down my arm.
The kids became quiet and just stared at me. I had their undivided attention. The obvious question…? “Why aren’t they stinging me?” A couple of suggestions were offered: “they know me;” “I trained them;” and then one student said, “they’re just hungry.” Exactly.
Next question: “What would make a wasp want to sting me?” The dessert-like larvae of yellow jackets are sweet tasty treats relished by such predators as skunks and moles. The adults have to act quickly to defend their yummy young. The kids could relate to the idea that they sting large animals when they perceive a threat to their nursery, rather than simply someone’s soda. Even so, I suggested they not try this at home.
Yellow jackets are familiar to anyone who picnics in late summer and early fall. Often mistaken for bees, they are found crowding and crawling around garbage cans and are in the habit of crashing your picnic, and helping themselves. Their numbers are at a maximum this time of year, they are extremely hungry, and are searching well beyond their normal territory for food.
Next question: “What besides root beer do they eat?” The stout bodied wasps, and their relatives the hornets, are predators. They hunt for insects, both adult and larvae, which they sting in order to subdue, chew up, and feed to their young. They actually provide a valuable pest control service, even though most of us consider them potentially painful pests.
Like bees, they are yellow and black and about a half inch long. Unlike bees they are meat eaters and can deliver a nasty bite as well as a sting. Like bees, they build large nests. Unlike bees, yellow jacket nests are paper with cells pointing down. Bee nests are of wax with cells pointing out. Like bees, they sometimes nest in hollow areas in buildings or logs. Unlike bees they often hollow out old mammal dens underground for a paper nest. The bees’ furry body makes them look dirty. By comparison, the yellow jackets are a brighter shinier yellow and black.
Yellow jacket wasps can sting over and over, as well as bite. The bee has only one chance, and then the stinger stays in the skin, while the bee goes off someplace to die, literally ‘not having the guts’ to do that again. Bees are fond of nectar and pollen, and lack the mouth parts to bite.
As summer ends, yellow jackets produce queens which mate and then seek a likely place to hide and over winter so they can start up a brand new colony come spring. The workers back at the hive are numerous and food is in short supply at this time of year, as days shorten. Gradually they all die. It’s up to the queens to start new nests come spring. Unlike wasps, worker bees overwinter.
Many a late summer/ fall picnic has been ruined by persistent famished yellow jackets.
There are a few ways to deal effectively with them. First of all it does no good to spray pesticides. The irresistible odor of food will just keep drawing more. A couple common sense precautions for late summer picnics: Keep your drinks and food in covered containers to minimize risk of sipping or chewing a wasp. Keep the area clean so as not to become a beacon to hungry yellow jackets. Keep garbage covered and out of reach.
One way to reduce yellow jacket encounters is prevention… leave moles alone. Predatory moles attack underground wasp nests and eat the larvae. For this service alone, it’s worth putting up with a few mole hills and hunting tunnels. If mole damage seems ‘excessive’ this may be an indicator of another problem.
I was able to let hungry yellow jacket wasps wander over my sleeveless arm and ungloved hand because they are not very dangerous when away from the nest. However, sometimes painful stings just happen. The critter may become trapped beneath loose fitting clothing, behind glasses, or inadvertently brushed by your hand. It could even be on your lawn chair and become sat upon. A friend once took a sip of soda, not realizing that a yellow jacket had crawled inside his can. From his mouth erupted a spray of soda, wasp, and profanity. The critter had stung him on the tongue.
A stinger is a very sophisticated weapon, causing intense pain in animals many times larger than the wasp. If you’re unlucky enough to get stung, you might try ice to relieve the pain of the sting. But be aware of symptoms that call for immediate medical attention. For example, difficulty breathing, tightness in throat, hoarseness, nausea, feeling faint or dizzy, hives, swelling of tongue or extremities, abdominal pain or vomiting. If you have a history of allergic reaction to stings you may consider having an epinephrine pen handy… and call 911.
As you pass through the office, I know exactly where you are
shrieks, profane utterances, and jostling chairs mark your progress
cubicle lights window-like beckon
but offer no egress
armed with cup and card, I venture forth
intent to rescue you and everyone else
from proximity induced trauma
outside, with card removed from cup, you re-join the world