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Yellow Jacket Queens On the Move And How To Spot A Nest

By Chris Williams on June 27, 2014.

Yellowjacket queens

Yellow jackets can be aggressive if their nests are threatened.

wasp nests

Yellow jacket nest with screwdriver for scale. Photo by Tim Chase

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Katlyn Graham:  Hi, I’m Katlyn Graham, here with Tim Chace, a pest control technician and entomologist with Colonial Pest. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Chace:  Good morning, Katlyn.

Katlyn:  Good morning. Thanks for joining us here today. We’re discussing yellow jackets. Tips on yellow jacket wasp control in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This is the season for yellow jackets. How do you think the season is looking for yellow jackets this year?

Tim:  That’s a great question. This year, I have been seeing so many queen yellow jackets on the move. I think that the heavy snowpack and constant temperatures have again allowed many, many, yellow jackets over winter, over the hard winter, they were just quiet until they were released from their slumber over the winter. As I’ve been doing my work this year, I’ve been seeing so many yellow jacket queens on their first hunting missions. The queen yellow jacket can be recognized, also the queen bald faced hornet, these two are very closely related species, subspecies.

One of the first things the queen will do when she comes out in the spring is to begin her first nest construction and start looking for a net. These first queens are some of the largest wasps you’ll see all year. She’s just a big one. It’s the one that you’re seeing flying around. She’s looking for holes in the ground to start a nest. Holes in your house. Places in bushes. Typically, under a little under hangs. The nest starts out about the size of a golf ball, maybe, with concentric layers of paper.

Right now, she’s maybe one of the only wasps. The first brood hasn’t quite hatched out yet. It won’t be long until the first babies are born. Once the babies are born, wasp have an interesting life cycle. They lay their egg in an upside down honeycomb shape paper chamber. That egg turns into a larva. The larva wasps feed everybody. All the food is brought back to these larva and secret fluid for the adult wasps. It’s like an energy drink.

Once the wasp is done as it’s larva period, it seals off that little chamber and then the adult wasp will be born out in a few more days, maybe a week or so, depending on the temperature. These first nests just contain the queen now. As she’s hunting, you’ll notice a little gentle back and forth flying motion. That allows her very acute eyesight to pick up what she’s looking for.

Typical little spiders and critters that are on the bushes and trees. If watch one carefully, you’ll see that she’s examining every little corner at the corner of a house and the shingle. Looking very closely for her preferred prey. It’s very interesting to watch. While they’re doing that maneuver, they’re not threatening at all. They’re not protecting their nest. Even when the workers come out, they’re hunting. They’re not generally aggressive. You don’t have to worry about one just flying around you, per se. It’s not after you.

Katlyn:  That is reassuring because I have read that yellow jackets can be very aggressive and when they sting you, they sting repeatedly. I also read that yellow jackets venom was more potent than bees. You sound a little bit less alarmed by the yellow jackets. You say, “Remain calm and you’ll be fine?”

Tim:  They are certainly some of the most aggressive wasps in North America. The yellow jackets and the bald faced hornets are both very aggressive nest defenders. If the nest, itself, is disturbed, there’s heck to pay. They will come out in force and get you. Typically, it starts out with some kind of encounter with the nest itself, maybe you’re pruning a bush. You bumped in to it in the yard with your head.

You step into one or you step over one in the ground. Sometimes, the nest starts in a mouse hole, will expand to be that large paper nest. Thousands of them will come out and get on your legs. They would love to sting you in the face. One of their biggest predators would be raccoons, skunks, and bears, wolverines. I don’t think weasels, maybe weasels. The larva and the nest material is very nutritious, it’s a huge food source.

We’ve found cases where the skunks have just dug a nest out and ate everybody, that usually solves the problem once the nest is destroyed by an animal. There’s no future need for pest control. When those nests do get disturbed, you’ll have a couple sentries come out right away and if they feel threatened, they will sting you with their very powerful venom. It is very, very painful. If you’re allergic to bees and other stinging insects, there could be trouble for you.

The barb of the yellow jacket stinger, his stinger lacks a barb, so they can hold onto you with their mouth and feet and continue to sting you repeatedly at will.

Katlyn:  Oh.

Tim:  There’s also something interesting that happens when Yellow Jackets have a target. That first sting is a very powerful pheromone attractant. That marks you as what’s bothering the colony. They’ll come out and try to sting that same area and that inflames the event. The more stings happen, the more of this potent, aggressive smell goes around, and they will continue to sting. When you’re getting stung, there are a couple things we recommend. Number one, move out of the area and get as far away from the nest as you can.

Katlyn:  [laughs] Yeah.

Tim:  Try not to flail too much. I know it’s very difficult when you’re getting stung, but the less movement the better. They can see that moving object very well. It’s interesting, and with the bee suit on it’s much less threatening. You can actually walk right up to a hanging wasp nest in the tree and get your face almost inches away without getting them too upset, if you’re very, very slow. I’ve tried the same maneuver running up with your arms flapping, and they come out immediately.

In a lot of cases, there are a couple sentries that have just had their eye out at the edge of the nest, whether it’s in the ground or in an aerial nest, or even if it’s in a wall void by the house, there will be a couple guys just looking outside. They’re keeping an eye out for anything that’s going to disturb the nest. Their job is to come out an protect the nest, if possible, or at least investigate any disturbances. Loud noises will get it, vibrations, things like that. I’ve seen dogs and pets get stung, children aplenty.

Katlyn:  Oh.

Tim:  The odd pest control technician.

Katlyn:  Oh, I bet. I bet you do. I sounds like it’s really important not to disturb that. You said the nest starts as a golf ball?

Tim:  Yeah, the first nest begins as a very small paper globe. As the queen has more and more workers, the workers take over the building of the nest and her job is solely to lay eggs. She’ll continue to do that. As the nest grows in size from that little golf ball, at the end of the season yellow jacket nests can be several feet in diameter, with up to 25 to 3,000 actual workers in there at the end of the season.

As the season progresses, their work changes from nest building and increasing the worker population into producing the over‑wintering queens for next year. Special chambers are built for these new queens, which are, again, the largest wasps of the colony. As these wasps develop, they are generally the last ones to hatch out of the nest. If you’ve had a yellow jacket nest in the house before, sometimes, you’ll notice one or two wasps show up on the window every day inside. That’s usually an indication that somewhere in the wall void there’s a yellow jacket nest.

A few of the workers get lost in the wall void and make their way out. If you’ve had that all summer, brace yourself. If you haven’t found the nest, you might notice the world’s biggest wasps on your window in October, as these same wasps that are the overwintering queens stumble out of the wall void and fly over to the window. That’s an indication that you had a big nest over the winter.

Katlyn:  In your wall. That’s got to be tough to get out, I would think. What should you do if you find a yellow jacket nest?

Tim:  That’s a good question. Like we were discussing earlier, try not to disturb it, if at all possible. Locating a nest, usually has two things going on. You’ve bumped into it and you know where it is because you were stung.

Katlyn:  [laughs] Yeah.

Tim:  That’s the common way of locating your nest. There is another way to look for it. Because of what they do for hunting, the yellow jacket’s flight is a very gentle back and forth fluttering. That’s one time of behavior. When they’re doing that, as I said earlier, they’re really not in an aggressive state. You can swat them away from you. It won’t come back and get all excited. They’re just go, “Ah, I have to get out of here.” When they’re going to and from the nest, it’s a very dedicated flight. It’s almost what we would call a beeline. They’re going straight into and out of the nest to their food source or where they’re foraging.

The best times of year to look for this would be…we’re getting into June. I’d say around the first or second week of July you can start looking for yellow jacket nesting activity. Although, right now, you can spot the little globe nests and wipe it out with a broom. As soon as she flies in, you can whack it and kill the nest. Right there, you’ve stopped it for the season. Once the nest gets more workers, though, it’s a little bit more dicey, and involves a few different techniques and some protection. Because they’re flying to and from the nest, usually by 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, there’ll be some good activity on a sunny day.

When the light is low, it’s a good time to look across the yard to dark spaces. You can see the actual lighted insects flying purposefully in and out of the mouse hole in the back of the yard. You can actually spot the individuals. I like to go around my house two or three times starting at the end of July and just stand there and observe. Look for insects flying in a purposeful fashion.

Katlyn:  That’s a good idea.

Tim:  You see two or three of them go into a spot, keep your eye right there. If there of them come out, you’ve got a nest. Same thing with bushes. Let’s say, we’re going to go trim the shrubs in front of the house. One of the methods that I like to use is the eyeball so you can look for that activity of coming and going.

Another tried and true method is to take the lawn rake and give the bush a little whack and stand back. If they’re in there, they’ll start flying around looking for what cause that disturbance. If you do that a couple times, and no one is flying around, you’re probably OK.

Katlyn:  Check the tree or bush before you start pruning. That’s another good tip.

Tim:  Also, inspecting the roof line of the house. If you stand along the corner of the house, you might be able to see into the distance and spot something coming and going out of a hole. As the nest gets larger and larger, they’re producing this paper material to encircle the growing number of plates of larva. They’re stacked up these trays of honeycomb with the larva in them. It looks like upside down plates with a little honeycombs.

As that increases in size, the paper sack that surrounds that increases that. If these guys are in the wall void or I saw a neat one a couple years ago in an electrical box outside. As the nest expanded, they covered the side of this metal box with the paper too. They had a little opening where they were going in but they built paper around one side of this whole unit. It was pretty interesting.

As the nest grows in the wall void, sometimes they will excavate the sheet rock out of the ceiling and you’ll wake up to a little cone of paper on the ceiling with wasps flying around. It’s an expand of a nest. They see the outside and they think they can get out your window. They’re not really mad then because you haven’t upset them but they’ll be flying around the room. You could get stung then. It’s very upsetting to wake up with that.

Katlyn:  Oh, yeah, you don’t want them in the house, I would think.

Tim:  No, it’s very bad.

Katlyn:  Thank you for explaining all that, Tim. It sounds like we need to be on the look out for yellow jackets this summer.

Tim:  Absolutely. Be careful near those bushes.

Katlyn:  Remain calm. No flaying. [laughs] Thank you, Tim.

Tim:  You’re welcome.

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Yellow Jacket photo by Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA (Yellow JacketUploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Yellow jacket nest photo by Tim Chase

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