Facts about Yellow Jackets

Here’s a tidbit about insects you shouldn’t personally observe: Yellow jackets aren’t covered with tannish-brown dense hair on their bodies like honeybees. Just trust the experts on that fact. For if you’re close enough to notice the difference, you’re likely to feel the intense pain of the lance-like stinger as this wasp jabs you repeatedly. Not once, but over and over until you can escape. A honeybee may have barbs, but will attack only once, then has the dignity to die.

Scientists know that the venom in a yellow jacket’s stinger contains a chemical “alarm pheromone,” which is released in the air, signaling guard wasps to sting whatever – or whomever – gets in their way. It’s best to avoid swatting at a yellow jacket if you want to avoid a “frenzied” attack. This kind of behavior have earned yellow jackets the title of Most Dangerous Insect in the U.S. A report by the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Illinois says that yellow jacket stings are responsible for about half of all human insect stings.

It’s true that yellow jackets are social wasps, living in colonies that contain workers, queens and males. This behavior, as well as their general appearance, lead their human victims to believe that the workers are simply honeybees. An accidental bump into one, however, will quickly alert you that you messed with the wrong insect. Wasps (and bees, for that matter) fly about six-to-seven miles an hour, so humans can outrun them. But it’s unlikely you’ll escape without several stings, anyway. And should you crush one, the yellow jacket’s alarm pheromone will send members of the colony to attack. And if you’re one of the thousands of hypersensitive people to the wasps, you’ll need emergency medical treatment.

You can try to avoid a run-in with these yellow-and-black devils. Forget wearing dark-colored clothing. Don’t wear perfume or aftershave when you pack your picnic basket. Leave your shiny jewelry – buckles, earrings and bracelets – at home when you spend a day golfing or boating. And cover any food outside, if you’re anywhere near it. Even though yellow jackets eat caterpillars, flies and grubs, they’re attracted to anything we eat or drink, especially meat and sweet foods. Unfortunately, even human sweat appeals to these one-inch (or smaller) menaces. Their mouth parts are well-developed for capturing and chewing bugs with a tongue for sucking nectar, fruit and other juices.

One potential safe place is your car. If you notice a yellow jacket moving around in the back seat, stay calm. They almost never sting in enclosed places. But since most human activities take place outside a moving vehicle, the best you can do is to be wary of nests in the ground; yellow jackets make their home in railroad ties, bushes and holes in building walls. But being the unpredictable insects they are, they’ll nest under eaves or in trees.

And as summer turns to fall, yellow jackets tend to get angry at the shortage of food. Make sure your garbage cans are sealed and covered, or you’ll feel the wrath of a colony’s hunger.

We tolerate yellow jackets because they’re beneficial for pollination. That’s their job, and it’s necessary to the ecosystem. But even the Journal of Pesticide Reform, which looks at alternative and safer ways to manage insect populations, said, in its Summer 2004 issue, that yellow jackets “…seem persistent, clever and difficult to manage.” Content in the same article suggested that the wasps “…should be encouraged to nest in areas of little human or animal activity.”

Since that’s not likely to happen, a couple of easy-to-remember instructions will help you share the outdoors with yellow jackets – avoid them, and if stung, act quickly. Trying to kill them or remove a nest will do more harm than good. And that’s a fact.