I went to a barbecue last week with friends from the newspaper. It took place in a lovely backyard on a pleasant, sunshiny day. There we were enjoying good food, good scenery, good company and enjoying a lovely day — that is until the gang in yellow and black came and crashed the party.
They came to eat and eat they did — going so far as to help themselves to food from our plates. As we picked up our burgers, there they would be grabbing food between hand and mouth. The whole scene is becoming more and more common in backyard eating right now and relief probably won’t come this summer.
The gang members aren’t very big but they can be nasty. They have big eyes, voracious appetites and the ability to bite, sting and move fast when they want to. At this time of year, they become particularly annoying as they hover around hamburgers and steaks, soft drinks and desserts.
In truth, this yellow and black gang of yellow jackets isn’t really such a bad lot — they are basically beneficial insects. They capture and sting harmful insects to feed their young and thus help protect our crops. They also play a small part toward pollinating crops.
They are somewhat different from the roundish honeybees and leafcutter bees, which efficiently pollinate crops. For the most part, bees are content to mind their own business and work for the good of their hive. If people don’t bother them, they typically won’t bother people.
Wasps are oblong and somewhat pointed. They also live in communities, but they don’t seem to have the community working-together dynamic that bees do. They tend to show up in random numbers and places and seem to want to own the space they live in. They build nests all over the place: in the ends of pipes, shrubbery, trees, clothesline poles, swing sets, rafters of buildings, shrubbery, wood piles, parked vehicles, under floors, under porches, in the corners of swamp coolers and more.
Most importantly, they don’t play well with humans. People go outdoors to play (with each other — not with the wasps) only to find that the wasps have claimed the territory and human guests are not welcome.
If it seems that you are having more problems now than earlier in the season, you are not imagining it. Yellow jackets and wasps have changeable personalities as the season evolves.
In the spring and early summer you may not notice these pests much. They busily gather nectar to nurture their young but by the end of the summer, they need protein and sugar as their life cycle dictates. These pests swarm to fruits in gardens, congregating on spots where birds have pecked an opening. They are also eager to go after ripening grapes.
It is all a part of their life cycle. The queens generally survive the winter and each builds a small new nest in some protected spot where she lays a few eggs. The nests are new each year — winter weather disintegrates nests in exposed areas and in sheltered areas where they are not damaged, they will not be used again the next year.
The first eggs hatch out as the larvae of infertile female workers. The queen nurtures them until they are mature. Sometime in June, the mature wasps go to work at expanding the nest and nurturing later generations of wasps. Later hatches include potential queen wasps. By summer’s end, the colony may include hundreds of workers, queens and males.
Toward the end of the season, adult males and queens leave the colony to mate. After mating, the males die and the fertilized queens seek protected places to hide for the winter. Parent colony workers dwindle, and they and the founding queen usually leave the nest and die.
As later generations emerge the bees are preparing for mating and wintering and their diets require more protein and sugar. The workers chew meat into a useful substance that nurtures the young. In return, the young secrete a sweet substance that the adults like. This drive for protein urges them to flock to garbage cans and picnics where they aggressively seek out the needed foods.
An unsuspecting diner can get a nasty surprise when he reaches for the same food, soda pop, fruit or meat as the wasp.
Unlike honey bees that have a barb on their stingers and can only sting once, wasps’ stingers are straight and they can and do sting repeatedly — often hitting the same subject in several places. Besides tongues for sucking nectar and juices, they have well developed mouthparts for capturing and chewing insects. This means that at the end of the season they can bite as well as sting.
If you are stung, apply a meat-tenderizer as a poultice. A baking soda paste is soothing, but meat tenderizer contains a compound that breaks down venom and soothes the pain. Antihistamine ointments, tablets and prescription medicines also reduce reactions to stings — particularly among those who are allergic to the venom. You may find that the site of the sting remains red and becomes itchy for a few days as it heals. It may also swell somewhat.
If you swell rapidly when stung, you are likely experiencing an allergic reaction. See a doctor for medication without delay. For some people stings can be deadly, and anti-allergy medications are available.
How do we deal with these pesky insects that threaten as they use our space? Crushing seems like a quick dispatch, but it appears that the relatives rush to the funeral. In reality, their carcasses emit a pheromone (insect hormone) that attracts other wasps to the area. If you crush one against your body, clothing or shoes, it could trigger nearby wasps to attack and if you are near a nest that could be a serious problem.
Avoid disturbing their nests either directly or by getting too close making loud noises, or vibrating them. Stay back from the nest.
Do not run from these insects as they tend to attack where they sense quick motion. Paper wasps are particularly prone to follow motion. Simply move away quietly and slowly. Your best bet is to discourage them from invading. Keep picnic foods covered until you are ready to eat. The scent of food attracts them. Keep garbage containers tightly sealed and clean and empty the containers often.
Get rid of nests if necessary. Wasps return to their nests at night and become less active in the cool darkness. The ideal time to work on the nests is late in the evening, at night, or very early in the morning. Since they cannot see red light, put red cellophane over the end of a flashlight so you can find them without being seen yourself.
Aerosols are available at local garden centers to control these insects. They shoot up to 20 feet, immobilize on contact and kill within moments. The nests may need to be re-treated for several nights since all the workers may not return to the nests each evening.
Wasp traps are also available that can be baited with meats or attractants. These traps may catch as many as 150 per day.
Despite all the warnings in this article, do not forget that these insects do serve a useful purpose in the ecosystem. If they are not causing problems, the best bet is to leave them alone and let them do what they do — attack other insects and help with pollination.