Yellowjacket

Yellowjackets & Paper Wasps:
A Gardener's Friends


"Paper wasps, hornets, & yellow jackets
are especially important in reducing
leaf-feeding caterpillar populations."

-Eric Grissell,
Insects in the Garden
Timber Press, 2001


Polistes aurifer is the native species of paper wasp most often seen around our area, but the introduced European paper wasp P. dominulus has also become quite common in more urban areas. We haven't as yet ever gotten ground-nesting yellowjackets in our yards, but Vespula pensylvanica is also common enough in the Northwest.

When a nest appears in or near the garden, many a gardener panics & resorts to unnecessary toxins or hires costly pest control specialists to get rid of the fearful little beasties. But there is simply no reason to be alarmed.

Yellowjackets & paper wasps are gardeners' friends, as they eat garden-chomping insects. A single nest in a garden will be cleaning out aphids, leafhoppers, caterpillars, beetle larvae, flies, & all manner of garden-munchers at a fantastic rate. They also disperse trillium seeds, which imitate a meat or insect odor that causes yellowjackets to cart away the seeds & drop them elsewhere when they figure out it isn't meat.

paper wasps abandon their nest after a single use, so their nesting presence is temporary. If it were necessary to move one it could be wrapped in plastic at night & carted away, as none of the colony will be outside the nest at night; poisoning would not be necessary.

I've known many people who had serious even life-threatening allergies to bees or wasps, but none thought the best way to deal with it was to poison the garden & inevitably their pets, their kids, themselves, & all the beneficial insects in the vicinity. My Grampa Gordon had a bee allergy sufficient that he kept a kit handy in case he was stung, but that didn't keep Great-grampa Perry from keeping honeybees. And while my life overlapped Gordon's, he was never stung that I knew of & never had to use the kit.

Wasps don't have to be nesting in the garden to be in the garden; you'd have to poison all the surrounding yards if their mere presence incited a phobia. Instead of worrying about them, they should be feted as welcome visitors.

The best way to deal with them is personal calmness. It would be possible to sit quietly within inches of a paper wasp nest & observe closely their comings & goings, & there would be no risk at all.

Ground-dwelling yellowjackets may appear to be more aggressive than paper wasps, but that doesn't mean they're not also docile. Rather, their aggression is oriented toward hunting meat even if is on your picnic plate. You could offer yellowjackets a greasy chunk of fried chicken & let them crawl all over your hand in great numbers & the happy little buggers would never sting you (they might accidentally nibble you if your fingers are greasy enough to be mistaken for the meat). You could brush them off your sandwich with the back of your hand & there would be very little likelihood of a sting, though they might dart over your hand to get back on the sandwich. However, if one of these ground-dwelling wasps did get annoyed, their lance-shaped stinger can be used repeatedly if it is not possible for the critter to dart away. Or when nesting near areas where children run about, there is the risk of stepping on one barefoot, in which case it will sting in terror for its life. Barring an actual allergy, the rare sting can be treated with MSG.

At a lakefront gathering in Idaho for a Golden Anniversary party, the primary picnic area had a large colony of ground-wasps nearby. Grandkids & great-grandkids of all ages were running around; people were eating shitloads of meat; & the wasps were truly a nuisance trying to get their share of the food. But even with a dozen rowdy kids running about, & everyone's hands shooing wasps away from food, not one person was stung that afternoon, & the only complaint became that meat-eaters had to go indoors to finish their meals in peace. I'd admit in this case it might be a good idea to get rid of that particular nest if meat was going to be eaten around there regularly, as swarms of wasps gathering on picnic meats is annoying even if the likelihood of anyone getting stung remains slight. But it should never be a fear of stings that induces intolerance, because those critters wouldn't even sting the kids who were testing the limits of wasp docility.

They're simply not highly aggressive in terms of stinging. There is a slightly greater risk with ground-dwelling varieties, but paper wasps are usually up out of the way, & disinterested as they are in picnic meats, are not so apt to get in peoples' way.

I have lived around their nests for half a century & have never been stung by a paper wasp or yellowjacket. I was once stung by a mud-dauber (Sceliphron caementarium), but that was because I leaned against it by accident & it was trying to get loose; mud-dauber wasps ordinarily won't sting under any circumstance, their stinger being for hunting much more than defense; they don't even defend their little mud-nests. As a kid I once laid down under a swarm after a paper wasp nest had had rocks chucked at it. Several of us kids lay perfectly still & watched the swarm. Wrecking their nest does make them hostile, but even at their justifiably angriest it was a cinch not to get stung.

Ground-dwelling & paper-nest wasps are only aggressive when their nests are mucked with, so the best way to deal with them is by marking the location noticeably & giving them some space. Nearly all wasp attacks are the fault of people attacking the nest. Even with freezing aerosols & dosings of pesticides the wasps can still manage to be defensive as death is not instantaneous. When their nest isn't mucked with, they're very easy to live with.

The rule of thumb for when to control yellowjackets & paper wasps is this: Don't do it unless they present a definitive hazard, which will rarely be the case. They are beneficial insects & should be encouraged.

There are two understandable reasons to not tolerate a nest; allergy is not one of them since there'll still be plenty of wasps from elsewhere nearby & they are not out looking to sting people, presenting no inherent risk by their mere existence. But if a paper nest is built right outside the door, the mere opening & closing of the door could make the colony feel threatened, so it might have to be zapped at night with freeze-spray, wrapped in plastic, & taken away.

Some paper wasps in other regions can be quite protective of their nests, but northwest paper wasps are not particularly vigilant & you'd have to wack the nest with a stick before they'd get aggressive. We had a paper wasp nest the size of a football on our front porch a year ago, & the wasps were so little trouble we failed to notice a nest was on the ceiling until after the season was over & the nest was already abandoned. So a nest outside the door shouldn't automatically be regarded as a problem, & should be assessed case by case.

The second reason they might not be tolerated is for nesting right by a bar-b-cue pit or picnic site as happened at the golden anniversary gathering for the folks. Paper wasps don't eat dead meat, so this wouldn't apply to them; they might gather on the openings to pop cans or slurp moisture from watermelons & ripe fruits at the picnic, but they won't be aggressive meat-hunters like ground-nesting yellowjackets, their primary diet being captured insects & not apt to be attracted to human activities.

The ground-nesting yellowjackets by comparison can be extremely bold & happy about all the meat people are bringing to them. They will descend dozens at a single spot, landing on every picnic plate making it impossible to eat in peace. If following my example & becoming vegetarian isn't an option, then a nest right beside the picnic tables won't be very tolerable.

Their nests are not permanent, & even if a nest appeared in an imperfect location, time will take care of the problem & the gardener need only be careful of the nest for one or two seasons. All the wasps die during autumn except inseminated queens, who overwinter in an attic or in the ground, then start new nests in a new locations the following spring.

But if one is lucky enough to have a nest in a corner of the garden where one needn't be digging, or high in a tree or under the eaves where the colony is never threatened, it should be cause for thanks, as they are assisting the garden every minute they are active.

   



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