By Jamison Lauria
Have you noticed buzzing lately while hiking your regular trails or walking in nature?
Yellow jackets may be responsible for making all that buzz. Yellow jackets are around a one-half inch in size and have lean, smooth bodies with yellow and black irregular bands.
They act as pest control by devouring other problem insects and keeping ecosystems healthy. They are considered beneficial insects in the agriculture and valuable pollinators as they feed on nectar.
They are less efficient pollinators than bees due to their lack of hair, but they are still considered important. They belong to the Vespidae family, which includes paper wasps. The most widespread species is the western yellow jacket, and this species is prevalent in many of our preserves, including the Leomar Preserve.
Yellow jackets are eusocial insects with a well-structured hierarchy centered around the survival of their Queen. Colonies usually live for one season and die off in late fall or early winter. The new batch of fertilized queens will be the only ones to survive the winter die-off.
These new queens leave the old nest to find a safe place to hibernate. They will emerge in early spring to find a suitable nest site to start the new colony, typically choosing rodent burrows or other open crevices in the ground. The new Queen will then begin laying eggs to produce worker yellow jackets which she will feed and care for.
When mature, these new workers will begin collecting insects and nectar to support the colony’s growth. This allows the queen to focus solely on producing more eggs and a new batch of queens who will be responsible for the continuation of their life cycle. The male workers fertilize the new queens and do not have a stinger.
The female workers collect food, care for and defend the hive. Although individuals in the colony have different roles, they all have one crucial agenda, to make sure their new queens survive.
They will do this aggressively as the consequences of a failed nest before the new queens emerge are severe. Their aggressive behavior effectively prevents and deter predators as they have few natural predators.
As late summer and early fall approach, food sources for yellow jackets become limited, and their tempers worsen as they are starving. At this time they go looking for sugary food sources at barbeques, picnics and in our backyards. They can be pretty combative over a soda can. During fall, yellow jackets are more likely to attack and decimate neighboring beehives. Their temperamental behavior makes them a common nuisance and dangerous if someone is allergic. Yellow jackets can sting, but they will also bite to get a better hold while stinging.
When yellowjackets attack, they release an alarm pheromone that calls in nearby yellow jackets. If you step into a nest, do not stay in the area, as yellow jackets will accumulate in numbers. Immediately leave the area and find somewhere safe.
When you get a safe distance, check yourself for any yellow jackets that may still be on your body, please remove them and continue to leave the area. Do not jump into a body of water if attacked, as they may wait above the waterline to sting you. They do not believe in asking questions first and can sting unprovoked.
Below are a few ways you can help to prevent yourself, your family and your dogs from being stung.
How to best avoid yellow jacket stings:
- When hiking, stay on trails and keep your dogs leashed to prevent them from stepping into a yellow jacket nest that may be hidden. If you or your family are allergic, always have your EpiPen accessible.
- If you see multiple yellow jackets around while hiking on a trail or in your backyard, stop and scan the ground for burrows. If you see yellow jackets repeatedly flying in and out of the ground or another opening, you probably detected an active nest. Please avoid the area and try your best not to disturb it.
- If you find an active yellow jacket nest in your yard, contact a licensed pest control operator to remove it. Keep pets and family away from the site until it has been removed. Lawnmowers and other machines that create vibrations can aggravate yellow jackets. Avoid using this kind of equipment if there is a nearby yellow jacket nest, until it is safely removed.
- If you encounter a single yellow jacket and it approaches you, do not swat at it as this may make them act defensively, slowly walk away from the area.
- Avoid wearing floral perfumes and bright colors in areas where yellow jackets persist.
- When eating outside, cover up food and drinks to avoid attracting yellow jackets. Again, don’t swat at them; yellow jackets will also emit their alarm pheromone when killed, inciting aggressive behavior in yellow jackets nearby.
- Keep trash cans tightly sealed.
- To help prevent yellow jackets from establishing a nest in your yard make sure to cover up rodent holes in winter and early spring before they can establish. Throwing down diatomaceous Earth on old rodent burrows can help to prevent establishment of new nests in your yard.
- If you or someone around you is having an allergic reaction to a sting immediately dial 911. If you are unsure if you or a family member is allergic and want to know. You can go to a doctor to get yourself or children tested. If they find that you or they are allergic, doctors can help to set up an emergency plan so you are better prepared in the case of a sting.
Jamison Lauria is the preserve manager with The Escondido Creek Conservancy.
A message from the Conservancy: You can help our nature thrive by supporting our conservation efforts. In giving to the Escondido Creek Conservancy, you are helping wildlife and precious habitats in the Escondido Creek Watershed. To donate, go to escondidocreek.org/donate. For questions, please contact [email protected].