This past week when Doug was mowing around a mound of topsoil to make it more accessible for the excavator, he was stung painfully.  We warned the men working on our septic system, but though they dug up and moved that mound, they encountered no bees.

Just a few days after the dirt pile had been moved, we were startled to find a fresh hole about six inches in diameter in  our little barnyard flower bed .  When we investigated, we found it was full of bees, and we suspected the ground bees might be relocating.

It's moments like these when I appreciate the 7x zoom on my Coolpix!

I called the state entomologist Phil Pelliteri , and he set me straight.

Ground bees did not move their home or dig this hole.

They aren’t even ground bees.

They are yellow jackets.

This particular species make paper nests, but they make them in existing cavities – often an abandoned animal burrow.  Their entrance is about the size of a quarter.

The hole we came upon was probably made by a skunk looking for a high protein snack of yellow jacket larvae.

Thanks to that skunk, I now a lot more about yellow jackets.

1.  This is the time of year you are most likely to be stung

2.  Even so, Yellow Jackets are NOT out to get you.

3.  They will all be gone by mid October.

We live with many different bees and wasps around our barn.  Another species of wasp builds paper nests in my greenhouse, and I’ve been able to live with them.  I move about deliberately, and they leave me alone.

I admire them.   I imagine that wasps could well be the species that becomes dominant when humans and other large mammals have all gone extinct if we mismanage global warming as badly as I fear we will.  The wasps may be poised for world domination just like those runty, timid mammals were after the dinosaurs were wiped out.  Wasps and bees are organized and aerial.  They are social.  They care for their young,  and they are armed and dangerous.

Nobody likes to get too close to the business end of a wasp, and this is the time of year when wasps are most likely to sting humans.  Phil bases this on sting reports.  In some cases in late summer a third of the people who walk into the emergency room have yellow jacket stings.  Most of those stings will come from the German yellow jacket, which are often misnamed garbage bees.  These cavity nesters have been in Wisconsin for about 35 years.  (Sting reports have been declining the past five years, according to Phil.)

Each spring, queens who have overwintered in some protected spot find a home and start to produce a colony.  At first there is just the queen and a few workers.  By fall, there may be as many as 3,000 individuals in that colony.  All summer they have been going out there and using their stingers and legs to attack and subdue tiny prey.  They eat many caterpillars and other insect pests that damage crops and garden plants.  Thank you, Ms. Yellow Jacket!

But as the summer wears on, their food sources disappear.  They are looking for protein and sugar sources — and that is when they notice humans eating outdoors.

Another thing that makes them cranky is lawn mowers roaring over their entrance.  And they get steamed when their quarter-sized net opening is stepped on. This is the time of year, when their numbers are highest, they can make their disapproval most keenly felt.

Phil advised me to leave them alone, if I can easily stay out of their way.  There are pesticides which which I could anhiliate them at night while they are quiet, but by late October they will be dead anyway.  So I don’t see the reason to put poison on the ground where they are living now.

Here is a queen yellow jacket. (photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sankax/3467684761/

Soon the colonies will produce their only male members and a new generation of queens, who will fly up into the air and mate madly, then the queens will find a hidey hole for the winter, and in the spring the whole cycle begins again.  New queens do not tend to return to previous holes.

Note:  If the cavity they have set up housekeeping in happens to be within the walls of your house, you will probably start to notice them coming and going now that their numbers are so high.  It is a big mistake to plug that hole.  That will result in a lot of very angry yellow jackets coming into your house through other openings you didn’t even know were there.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to tell you how to get rid of these unwelcome neighbors, but here is a good site with advice on how to deal with stings.

 What have been your close encounters? 

What do you think of these intense, little critters?

11 replies

  1. We had a nest at the foot of our deck steps, and they had to be dealt with in that case. I used my grandmother’s method of dealing with them – a half gallon of boiling water poured into their hole just after dusk. It’s a cheap, highly effective, and non-toxic way to take them out.

    • Thanks for your comment, jomegat. Our yellow jacket nest is in the gray area. We walk by there constantly and park our car in that vicinity, but we do have the option of avoiding them without too much behavior mod. If they were as close as yours were, I think I would have to evict them too. And boiling water sounds both effective and nontoxic. Did one dousing do the job?

  2. I sure have a lot of respect for them! Last fall, while cutting buckthorn with a chainsaw, I encountered a yellow jacket nest and was stung multiple times. About 20 minutes afterward, my mouth started tasting funny (sort of like metal), so I had my wife drive me to the hospital just in case. On the way there, my vision became very blurred and gradually faded to the point where I couldn’t see much at all. Luckily it all went away as fast as it came on, but it sure was scary at the time!

    I now have to carry an ‘epipen’ wherever I go, in case I have a reaction with swelling. This new perspective sure puts a damper on my restoration efforts, but from now on, the chainsaw work will just have to wait until winter! 😉

  3. Wow, Jon
    You are so lucky you read those early symptoms right. Evidently, just like with bee venom, some people are hit much harder than others.
    Whenever I have been stung, I feel a surge that is intense and negative from my scalp to my toes, but it goes away pretty quickly leaving just the very sore and swelling sting for days. That is certainly bad enough, but not like the kind of reaction that you describe or the kind of thing that can actually cause people’s throats to swell shut.
    Aren’t we fortunate to live in a time and place where we have medical recourse to these things?
    The silver lining is that winter is a great time to get the chain sawing done.
    No ticks then either.

  4. The summer we moved to Gurnee I enrolled our son in an outdoor camp. He had wonderful time; however, one sunny day we got a call from the camp counselor to come pick him up early, as there had been an incident. Apparently, the children were hiking through a small wooded area when one of them stepped on or in some way disrupted a nest of yellow jackets. Lots of stings all around. I can just imagine all the screaming kids! 🙂 My son was stung 3 times. His face was swollen the next day. Other than that, he was fine. (I’m not sure how well the bees fared.)

  5. Hi Lorijo,
    Yes, I remember several similar incidents with my kids when they were young. In Indiana Della and the backdoor neighbor kids found wasps coming out of a hole in the ground and decided to pour “poison” (made of mixing up things from under the sink with frowney faces on the bottle) down the hole.
    That first scream from the neighbor girl had me on my feet and standing in the back yard before I knew I was moving. She was a screamer, and she had good reason to scream on that occasion. I remember another incident where wasps set up house in a park trail map box with the same group of kids. That didn’t turn out well either.
    But in both cases the yellow jackets were provoked.

  6. I have had wasps attack me for no reason but it is this time of the year when they are most aggressive. Surprisingly enough this year we have not had many wasps but plenty of hornets and I am not happy when they fly into the house. I have found that a swat in their direction does send them to the windows where they are swiftly dispatched but not something I relish doing.

  7. Wasps or hornets in the house — not a pretty picture, Joanna. I know just what you mean. I am willing to co-exist with the insect world when we are both outdoors, but I do like to feel I get a bit of a sanctuary indoors. It’s probably an illusion, but the term shelter includes shelter from stinging insects for me.

  8. Great information; thanks! I had forgotten that their numbers increase over the summer, so paying a little more attention to them at this time of year makes sense. I seem to have an irrational fear of stinging insects but, even so, hardly ever get stung. Maybe my fear makes me super-cautious. In any event, I almost never kill insects outside. It’s when they invade my home that I really lose patience. Even then, if opening a door or a window will encourage them out, that’s what I do. I hope your path doesn’t cross with your yellow jackets any more this year. It sounds like you have way too much on your plate to be pausing for stinging insects!

  9. Thanks for your comment, Eleanor. I’m lucky not to have been stung recently, which probably adds to my tolerance.
    As to the yellow jackets outside the barn, I think they received a slowly fatal blow from whoever dug into them. I am seeing fewer and fewer insects every day. As part of a social group, they have nowhere else to go and they aren’t going to make it to mid October.
    Poor, little things.
    Having just lost a 59-year-old friend to a sudden and fatal heart attack this week, life seems very precious and fragile to me right now.

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