The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Yellowjackets – insects with attitude

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Autumn's arrival lures us outdoors for tailgating, picnicking and outdoor frivolity. Unfortunately, all that revelry attracts party crashers of the insect kind. Wasps all dressed up in black and yellow can quickly turn fun to fright.

Yellowjackets are in the bee and wasp family. Remember bees and wasps are important pollinators so don't "throw all bugs out with the bath water". However, the yellowjacket's ability to repeatedly sting makes them a considerable health threat.

First learn to recognize yellowjackets. They are commonly confused with honeybees. Both are about ½ inch long; however, yellowjackets are more brightly colored with definite shiny yellow and black stripes and very little hair. Honey bees are more honey colored and covered with fuzzy hair.

In addition, don't confuse the harmless hover flies with yellowjackets. Hover flies also known as syrphid flies cannot sting, are smaller than yellowjackets, and have a more rounded body. I realize it's tough to focus when fear clouds our vision, but if you look closely you will see hover flies like all flies have one pair of wings while bees and wasps have two pairs.

The common eastern yellowjacket lives in underground nests in old rodent burrows, woodpiles, piles of brush, or hollow trees. German yellowjackets tend to nest inside walls of buildings. In late summer the yellowjacket nest may contain several thousand wasps. Late season brings high populations of short tempered yellowjackets. Most yellowjackets die after severe cold. New nests are started each spring by newly mated females.

Yellowjackets are attracted to areas with sweet food such as picnic areas and ice-cream stands. Open cans of garbage or unclean garbage cans are the biggest yellowjacket attractants. Also areas with rotting fruit such under apple trees can attract high populations of yellowjackets. Since yellowjackets often crawl into soda cans unnoticed, people are frequently stung on the lips.

Ways to avoid yellowjackets include not wearing floral perfumes or other scents including scented lotions or deodorants. Avoid wearing brightly colored and patterned clothing, especially avoid yellow or lime green colored clothing. Don't go barefoot outdoors and be sure to use drinking cups with full lids.

Avoid swatting or squishing yellowjackets. A squished yellowjacket releases a chemical that signals other wasps in the area to attack. The worst reaction is the chaotic sequence of flailing arms and violent swatting. Just remember in the old Tarzan movies the "lion bait" was the guy that ran into the jungle screaming.

I know it takes a lot of self-talk but if they land on you just be patient. They will fly away or lure them away with a bit of food. If you can't be that patient, very gently brush them off with a piece of paper with slow deliberate movements.

Commercial yellowjacket traps can be useful. Sometimes just putting a little meat or fruit in a dish far from activities is enough to draw them away. However, keeping garbage cans clean and covered, keeping outdoor food areas clean and food covered and removing rotting fruit is still necessary.

A yellowjacket nest around the home requires additional management measures. Remember bees and wasps are important pollinators so destruction of nests should be avoided if possible.

Yellowjackets like other wasps and bees are active during the day. Control measures should therefore be conducted at dusk or dawn without a flashlight or one with the lens covered with red plastic.

As with any pesticide, read and follow all label directions. Yellowjackets can be controlled with wasp and hornet sprays containing mint oil, permethrin, tetramethrin, or tralomethrin. Underground nests can be controlled with permethrin. Immediately after application shovel some soil down the hole and then run fast, run far. Above ground nests can be dusted with carbaryl insecticide to coat the opening.

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