So far, this has been a banner year for yellow jackets in and around the garden. These small but aggressive insects have taken our daily heat binges to heart and when disturbed (and it doesn’t take much to provoke these avenging creatures) have risen to the occasion, all stings loaded and ready for war.
Yellow jackets are about five-eighths of an inch long with a little stout body, a narrow abdomen, and (if you can get a close look without too much pain) nasty, beady little eyes. The head, thorax and abdomen are black and yellow or white. They have smoky-colored wings. There are two species: the Western yellow jacket (Vespula pennsylvanica) and the Eastern yellow jacket (V. maculifrons). Both are nasty.
They nest in the ground, sometimes making their home in an opening between stones in an old wall, or in cracks in railroad-tie steps, or in rotting stumps. They often choose to dig very small holes in the middle of the lawn, and if you mow over their door (usually when barefoot, wearing sandals and shorts), you get nailed.
In spring, a mated female builds a small nest and brings in daily rations of food to the larvae until the first brood matures and the females become the workers, both enlarging the nest and tending the young. In late summer, males develop from unfertilized eggs and mate. As frost approaches, they all die except for the mated females, who spend the winter among the leaves on the forest floor or in little pockets of soil. If you spot a nest, you can see these tiny flying torpedoes zooming up, up and away in straight lines — but don’t get in their way!
They’re also too-familiar uninvited guests at picnics — they always seem to know where the sweetened tea can be found, continually buzzing around the head of whoever’s most concerned about getting stung.
And can they sting! The females need only the slightest provocation to attack. The pain of a good sting can last for a couple of days, and to folks who are allergic to the venom, these creatures are deadly.
If you can find the nest, yellow jackets can usually be eliminated by carefully directing a wasp-spray insecticide into the opening. But if you wish to keep chemicals out of your garden, cover the hole with a transparent bowl (such as a glass mixing bowl) at night when the critters are inactive. When the sun returns, they’ll try to escape to find food and water but will be too confused to dig a new hole and will soon starve to death.
Remember to carefully mark the nest opening during the day so you’ll be able to find it when you launch your nighttime attack. Always approach a nest slowly and stealthily, and never shine a flashlight beam into the nest entrance, which could startle the wasps — something to be avoided at all costs! Instead, use indirect illumination, casting the beam to the side (if you think these creatures are bad when they’re swatted at a picnic, just wait till they think you’re a threat to the nest). If you’re not fast on your feet, discretion becomes the better part of valor — this is one time to call a professional pest-control company.
Of course, if the yellow jackets aren’t bothering you, you can always decide to just wait them out — they’ll expire with the coming of winter. But this requires a certain moral stance that I simply do not possess. In my garden, there’s room for only one — and that’s me.