SCORES & OUTDOORS: Dealing with those pesky underground terrorists

Many people confuse yellow jackets and hornets. Pictured at left is a yellow jacket, and a hornet on the right.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A few weeks back, I wrote about how strange this past summer has been (see The Town Line, August 15, 2019). My research also revealed that I wrote a similar column back in 2015. Is there a pattern developing?

Anyway, one of the things I mentioned was the lack of bees this past summer. Well, I was raked over the coals by fellow campers this past weekend when we were swarmed with yellow jackets. We could not enjoy the outdoors during the day because these little monsters were everywhere, trying to find anything that contained liquid. Due to the recent dry spell, they are looking for anything sweet with sugars.

Searching, we found four ground nests of yellow jackets. That is a good sign in itself. More on that later. Now, it was what to do about it.

That is one of the things I am on the fence about. I don’t want to destroy the hives, nor kill the bees, who are declining in numbers. On the other hand, they are annoying, and pose a danger to anyone who might accidentally come upon the hive, especially those allergic to a bee sting.

I have come to refer to these yellow jackets as underground terrorists.

Over the course of the last week, we have closed up the hives, hoping the bees will find somewhere else to go. Of course, there was some collateral damage.

With one hive left, I sprayed it on Sunday evening, right around dusk, the time when all the bees are back in the hive for the evening, so there is no activity around the opening. I checked on it Monday morning, and saw where there was still some activity. I didn’t spray on Monday evening because of the threat of rain.

Tuesday morning delivered the surprise. When I went to check on the hive, it had been completely dug up with the honeycomb exposed. Obviously the work of a skunk.

Skunks will dig up in-ground hives for the honeycomb. Their thick, tough skin makes them immune to bee stings.

Yellow jacket is the common name in North America for predatory social wasps. Members of these genera are known simply as “wasps” in other English-speaking countries. Most of these are black and yellow like the eastern yellow jacket and the aerial yellow jacket; some are black and white like the bald-faced hornet. Others may have the abdomen background color red instead of black. They can be identified by their distinctive markings, their occurrence only in colonies, and a characteristic, rapid, side-to-side flight pattern prior to landing. All females are capable of stinging.

Yellow jackets are important predators of pest insects. Yellow jackets may be confused with other wasps, such as hornets. A typical yellow jacket worker is about half an inch long, with alternating bands on the abdomen; the queen is larger, about three-quarters of an inch long.

Yellow jackets are sometimes mistakenly called “bees, ”given that they are similar in size and general coloration to honey bees, but yellow jackets are actually wasps. In contrast to honey bees, yellow jackets have yellow or white markings, are not covered with tan-brown dense hair on their bodies, do not carry pollen, and do not have the flattened hairy hind legs used to carry it.

Yellow jackets have lance-like stingers with small barbs, and typically sting repeatedly, though occasionally a stinger becomes lodged and pulls free of the wasp’s body; the venom, like most bee and wasp venoms, is primarily only dangerous to humans who are allergic or are stung many times.

Yellow jackets are social hunters living in colonies containing workers, queens, and males (drones). Colonies are annual with only inseminated queens overwintering. Fertilized queens are found in protected places such as in hollow logs, in stumps, under bark, in leaf litter, in soil cavities, and in man-made structures. Queens emerge during the warm days of late spring or early summer, select a nest site, and build a small paper nest in which they lay eggs. After the eggs hatch from the 30 to 50 brood cells, the queen feeds the young larvae for about 18 to 20 days. Larvae pupate, then emerge later as small, infertile females called workers. Workers in the colony take over caring for the larvae, feeding them with chewed up meat or fruit. By midsummer, the first adult workers emerge and assume the tasks of nest expansion, foraging for food, care of the queen and larvae, and colony defense.

From this time until her death in the autumn, the queen remains inside the nest, laying eggs. The colony then expands rapidly, reaching a maximum size of 4,000 to 5,000 workers and a nest of 10,000 to 15,000 cells in late summer.

The diet of the adult yellow jacket consists primarily of items rich in sugars and carbohydrates, such as fruits, flower nectar, and tree sap. Larvae feed on proteins derived from insects, meats, and fish, which are collected by the adults, which chew and condition them before feeding them to the larvae. Many of the insects collected by the adults are considered pest species, making the yellow jacket beneficial to agriculture. Larvae, in return, secrete a sugar material to be eaten by the adults. In late summer, foraging workers pursue other food sources from meats to ripe fruits, or scavenge human garbage, sodas, picnics, etc., as additional sugar is needed to foster the next generation’s queens.

As mentioned earlier, finding multiple ground nests is a good sign, according to old farmers’ folklore. Finding nests in the ground is an indicator of low snowfall for the upcoming winter. We’ll wait to see if that is the case.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which two Boston Red Sox players each had over 30 homers and 50 doubles this season. The first time that has happened in Red Sox franchise history.

Answer can be found here.


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