Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

June 5, 2014
Wasps: Best friend or worst enemy?

If you’re a regular reader of this column, chances are you have a strong appreciation for horticulture, landscaping and creation of great outdoor spaces and gardens. If that describes you, make sure not to miss the upcoming Spring Garden Tour. Hosted by the Tooele County Master Gardeners Association, this 11-location tour June 14 is not to be missed. The Tour runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tour books are available for sale the day of the tour at Speirs Farm (394 W. 200 South, Tooele), Tooele Valley Nursery (Cimmarron Way and Hwy. 36), and the Fawson Residence (187 Waterhole Way, Grantsville). Books are $7 per adult and the locations are inspiring and welcoming. Come and pick up a guide book and enjoy 11 adventures located in Tooele, Erda, Stansbury Park and Grantsville. For more information, visit

As the weather continues to warm up, you’ll see increased wasp activity. Wasps are commonly mistaken for bees, especially by children. Wasps can be mistaken for hornets as well. Hornet nests are quite sizable, and are covered with a papery shroud. If you’ve watched “Winnie the Pooh”, and seen the “bees” coming out of the large acorn shaped structure, you’ve seen a representation of a hornet nest. If you’d like to see one locally, there’s an abandoned nest on display on the wall of the Stockton Miners Café just inside the front door facing the main dining area.

There are many types of wasps, although the ones that most people are most aware of are yellow jackets and paper wasps. Wasps are actually quite beneficial, even the “scary” ones. There are parasitic wasps (laying their eggs on the larvae of other insects), solitary hunting wasps (some hunt spiders, others larvae of various insects) and the social wasps — all in the family Vespidae.

Both paper wasps and yellow jackets are social wasps, meaning they live in colonies constructed of paper the wasps make by chewing plant fiber. Paper wasps tend to be more in the open, above ground, and are connected with a single stalk to whatever is supporting the nest. The open cells in the nest are readily seen. Yellow jackets conceal their nests, even though they are also constructed of paper fiber. They will build nests in cavities underground, under objects laying on the ground, or other structures and foundations that will provide strong protection and concealment.

For the more readily-viewed paper wasp nests, you’ll see differing activity throughout the season. In the early spring, you’ll see small nests being constructed under overhangs, and other protected areas. These are being established by female wasps that overwintered and are now constructing nests and laying eggs. As time goes on, the nest will be enlarged, and more wasps will nest there. At the end of the season, when very cold weather occurs, the nest will be abandoned and a few females will find places to spend the winter to start the process all over the following year.

Even though wasps are an important part of the ecosystem, they can become a nuisance when nests are located in close proximity to activities or pathways of humans. Yellow jackets seem to have a broader range of appetite than paper wasps do. Yellow jackets like meat, sugar water, and various food residues. This makes them a strong nuisance around trash cans that are not emptied rapidly. Paper wasps tend to seek proteins earlier in the season to feed their brood — developing larvae in the nest. Adults get their nutrition from nectar — a sugary substance produced in flowers. However, a sugary soft drink will do the trick just as well. Now that you know this, you won’t be as surprised the next time you have wasps show up at the barbecue grill when you are flipping burgers, or you see them wanting to share your non-diet soda with you.

I don’t recommend you swap at wasps. If you infuriate them, they will sting. You can “shoo” them away — they tend to take the hint after a couple of suggestions of being unwelcome. If you do get stung, and you are by a nest of wasps, run away and get inside or a safe place quickly. This is because the sting of a wasp may emit a hormone to tell the other members of the colony you are a threat to them. It doesn’t help matters that a wasp doesn’t lose its stinger and can sting repeatedly — unlike bees. Get out of the area quickly. You can ice the sting to reduce the effect. If you’ve been stung multiple times (10 or more), or in the mouth, or if you experience any difficulty breathing, get medical attention right away.

If you do need to eliminate a nest, do so when it’s cooler and dark. All of the members of the colony will generally be “at home.” Distance is your friend, as is darkness. Wasp sprays, which can reach distances up to 20 feet, will afford protection, but there is always a risk of being stung. If I’m going to eradicate a nest, I do so just after dark and when the air is calm. Wasps “breathe” differently than we do. They respire through spiracles (small openings) in their thorax. There are minuscule tubes leading from the spiracles to the cells in the wasp’s body. This is important to know because if you spray them with something that is oily or soapy, it will suffocate them. The sprays you buy from the garden center contain other substances as well that quickly “knock down” the wasps.

Later in the summer, you may encounter wasps raiding your fruit trees or grapes. As the summer progresses, wasp’s appetites for sugar water increases — it literally is their life. Ripening large and small fruits are irresistible to them. To control large numbers of wasp in the least toxic way, simply get a container of car wash soap. It’s thick and inexpensive. Fill a small sprayer (commonly used for household cleaning solutions or for water misting for ironing) with one half soap, one half water. The high concentration is needed for coating the wasps. If you come upon a cluster of grapes or bird-pecked fruit being devoured, simply douse the whole mass of wasps with your sprayer. They will immediately start dropping. I’ve done this many times, and have never been stung — although I can’t absolutely guarantee that for someone else. The wasps are absolutely intent on the fruit and seem to have no awareness of me. Be sure to wear closed-toed shoes as the wasps will drop to the ground and don’t want them on your feet.

Like any insect, it’s impossible to eliminate them. You are only controlling them and reducing their numbers. There are so many places for them to nest that more will keep coming. They are indeed your friend in controlling many other undesirable pests, but at the same time can be a nuisance for some outdoor activities. Like much in the gardening and the outdoors, you need to take the good with the bad. Control the ones that are being a nuisance, and leave the others be. They are out there doing good work for you.


Jay Cooper can be contacted at, or you can visit his website at for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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