Now is the time when yellow jackets are at their most numerous.
Add to that our propensity to take advantage of the cooler, drier weather to work and play out doors and their presence becomes even more noticeable.
Early each spring, a yellow jacket colony begins with a single queen. From spring to mid summer, the numbers of yellow jackets remains small to moderate. Beginning in mid-September and continuing through October, the colonies reach maturity and the wasps begin foraging in earnest to feed the developing future queens.
The fall is also the time when insect numbers are beginning to decline. This decline in their regular food source causes yellow jackets to seek out other types of food. This would normally be nectar from flowers and nectaries. However, an even more potent source of sweets is available.
That’s why yellow jackets begin inserting themselves into our picnics and other outdoor activities; going after the beer, ice cream, sodas and soft fruits. You’ll also see them hanging around hummingbird feeders and trash cans.
Yellow jackets for all the aggravation they bring us, are still a part of Mama Nature’s scheme. They prey upon numerous species of pestiferous insects that would, otherwise, destroy our carefully tended flowers and gardens. In turn, they also provide food for bears, birds, lizards, skunks and other wildlife. Native Americans used to make a soup out of them.
The only way to eliminate the potential threat of yellow jackets is to destroy their nest, not a simple process by any means. First, you have to find it. When searching for food, a yellow jacket will fly about in a random pattern. Once they’ve found a food source, it collects what it can carry and flies in a beeline back to its colony.
If you’re lucky enough to follow a yellow jacket back to its nest, quickly kill off the colony by applying insecticide. This is a job best done in the dark. Yellow jackets all return to their nest by dusk and spend the night. Come back after it’s dark and spray the entrance with one of those wasp sprays that send out a strong stream of insecticide over a distance of a few meters.
If you don’t mind getting up close and personal, mix up a liquid insecticide in a bucket of water and saturate the colony; pouring the mixture slowly and steadily down the entrance hole. Approach the nest with extreme caution. There will be a guardian wasp at the entrance. Don’t shine your flashlight beam at the entrance. They’re attracted to light. Instead, use indirect illumination to target the entrance. Just in case, wear long pants and long sleeves.
If the nest is in a wall void or is otherwise inaccessible or if you’re like me (old and slow), you should consider hiring a professional to get rid of the colony. Do not try and seal up the entrance. They may have more than one. Even if you succeed, the wasps will find a new way out. That can mean them drilling through the dry wall and emerging in large, angry numbers into your home. A final option is to ignore them. By late November, they will be gone.
If you can’t find the nest or you’re in a public area over which you have no control, there are still things you can do to reduce your exposure. Avoid wearing perfume, cologne, hairspray or sun tan lotions that make you smell sweet. For those of you who are fashion conscious, stay indoors. For everybody else, avoid wearing brightly colored clothing. You don’t want to look like a huge flower. Tan or white will do.
When picnicking, cover your food until it’s time to eat. When sipping at the beverage of your choice, make certain there are no unwanted visitors in the can or glass. Don’t eat or drink near the trash cans. The food debris and spilled drinks are highly attractive to yellow jackets. Enjoy your fall.
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.