Late summer and early fall are perfect times to get out and experience the great outdoors. Whether you prefer hiking, picnicking at the lake, or simply sitting on the porch drinking sweet tea, being outside is great this time of the year in the South. As more people are getting out, our attentions are turned toward the little things of life, particularly those that bite and sting. One that always comes to mind is the ever present, and seemingly always angry, yellow jacket.
Yellow jackets are stinging insects in the same family as red wasps, paper wasps and hornets. Like their cousins, yellow jackets are nest building, predatory insects that feed on food sources high in protein and carbohydrates, particularly other insects, small fish, nectar and over-ripened fruit. If you have ever had a picnic disrupted by them, you may notice that they prefer foods high in sugar content such as sodas and ice cream. Unlike wasps and hornets, yellow jackets tend to build their nests in below ground chambers, often in abandoned rodent holes and under logs. The insects are commonly found in voids within walls of houses or in and around retaining walls.
One or two yellow jackets swarming across your lawn may not be a problem, but stumbling across a nest while cutting grass during the dog-days of an Alabama summer can quickly escalate into a serious situation. Yellow jackets can be quite bellicose when hunting for food and even ferocious if the nest is disturbed. For multiple reasons, late summer and fall is the time when most people encounter these insects. All of these factors put together can lead to an increase of human-insect interaction.
First and most importantly, nest populations are the highest during late summer and early fall. Every nest starts as a single, fertilized female yellow jacket. If she succeeds in establishing a nest, the population increases from that point forward. By late summer, most all of the larvae have hatched and have become active adults, meaning that there are thousands of yellow jackets with no responsibilities other than hunting and gathering food.
Second, food and water sources become scarce this time of year, and along with the heat, this can make stinging insects a bit more hostile than at other times of the year. Lastly, people are more inclined to go out and enjoy the cooler temperatures during the coming weeks and months.
The yellow jacket worker is about ½ inch in length with alternating yellow and black bands on the abdomen. Foraging yellow jackets are often mistaken for honey bees because of their similar color and the fact that they may be attracted to the same food sources. Honey bees are slightly larger than yellow jackets and are covered with hairs or setae that are absent on yellow jackets. Honey bees have a barbed stinger, meaning that they can sting once and only once; yellow jackets have smooth stingers and can sting repeatedly, therefore do not swipe at yellow jackets as doing so can only make them angrier. Be sure to correctly identify the insect that is causing a problem before deciding what control measures to take.
If you do find a nest of yellow jackets, control is relatively safe and easy, if done correctly. First, identify where the insects are coming from. They generally have one main entrance and exit. Next, carefully mark or flag the area during the day when the insects are most active. Return at night, when the insects are least active, with a product labeled for yellow jackets and treat the entrance; be sure not to shine light into the hole as this may excite the nest. The initial contact with the insects will be productive, but their movement will spread the insecticide throughout the nest and kill most of the insects. Pressurized spray insecticides with the active ingredient permethrin that are labeled for yellow jackets are very effective in controlling this pest. Check the nest the next day and see if you notice a decrease of insects flying in and out of the hole; a second treatment may be necessary.
Yellow jackets, like other stinging insects are potentially dangerous, particularly to those who are allergic to stings. When stung, some people may experience immediate pain, localized swelling, and redness. Other people may experience a systemic reaction such as respiratory problems, swelling beyond the sting, nausea, anaphylactic shock, or even death in very rare instances. If you experience any dizziness, confusion, wheeziness, shortness of breath, fainting, or blackouts, see a physician immediately.
Written by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
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