Dealing with Yellowjacket Wasps

Last Sunday night we arrived home in Macomb, tired from a short trip visiting family in Quincy. Moreover, hauling around an infant and two young boys full of boundless energy tend to produce weary parents. Upon opening the door into the house, we were greeted as usual by our dog Murphy. Excited as a puppy to see us though his years now approach eleven.

As is our routine I immediately let the dog out while preparing beds and fetch sleeping children from the car. Returning to let Murphy inside, he runs to his fresh bowl of food. Following his dinner Murphy grabs his favorite bone and leads the way upstairs to bed.

As I knelt beside him to give a goodnight scratch, I noticed his ear was swollen. Upon examination, I saw no evidence of a wound or bite. My wife and I assumed it was due to a sting or spider bite. Too tired to investigate further and knowing we still had a long night of nursing, burping, and diaper changing ahead of us, we fell asleep.

The next morning, I made my way to the backdoor to let out an eager Murphy. I began my coffee ritual of blindly searching for the filters and measuring cup. Suddenly, Murphy let out a flurry of barks. These were unlike his usual warnings to the woods or neighbor dogs. These were angry barks, which I could easily equate a dog's version of expletives. Opening the door, I called him inside. As he approaches, I notice he was under attack by yellowjacket wasps! I quickly swept off the offending wasps, rushed Murphy inside and closed the door.

The swollen ear mystery from the night before was solved, but now we have a problem. An angry nest of yellowjacket wasps in my backyard where the kids play. How do we get rid of a yellowjacket nest?

What is a yellowjacket?

First some clarifications. The Common Yellowjacket (Vespula vulgaris) is often mistaken for honey bees. Similar to honey bees, yellowjackets are about ½ inch long and live in social colonies with a single queen. They both have alternating bands of markings, however, yellowjackets markings are a distinct bright yellow and black, whereas a honey bee's colors are a dull yellow-orange. Honey bees are also covered in small hairs, whereas yellowjackets are mostly hairless. Finally, yellowjackets are wasps, whereas honey bees are bees.

Why Yellowjackets Attack

Yellowjackets have been present in my yard since spring along with several other species of bees and wasps. All of these species, yellowjackets included, are beneficial insects, eating other soft-bodied creatures like caterpillars and providing pollination services. I even saw a hornet dragging a slug back to its nest. It is no wonder my hostas have been untouched by slugs this summer. If these nests are out of the way and no one nearby is allergic to stings, these bee and wasp colonies are best left alone.

Late in the season, yellowjackets will begin to aggressively pursue food. As flowers fade in the late summer into fall, nectar sources dwindle, making food scarce for the colony. Uncovered trashcans, picnic-goers, concession stands are all fair game and is where most encounter yellowjackets.

By late summer the population of yellowjackets in the nest is at its maximum, offering many troops to help defend the colony. Perhaps the most dreadful of tactics, the yellowjacket can sting multiple times. Unlike bees, a hornets stinger does not have a barb that lodges into its victim. A yellowjacket's stinger is smooth and can be used repeatedly injecting a dose of venom each time. An attacking or smashed yellowjacket also gives off a chemical signal to fellow nest-mates drawing them to battle. This is why you should never swat a yellowjacket. Instead, wait for the yellowjacket to depart. Often they are simply investigating you and will leave momentarily. If you cannot wait, push them off with a piece of paper, or slow deliberate motions. Avoid flailing your arms and hitting them, as you will then be perceived as a threat.

Methods for Controlling Yellowjackets

Controlling a yellowjacket colony brings its own share of risk. If a homeowner is not comfortable eliminating a yellowjacket nest or is allergic to stings, hire a professional.

If you do not have a yellowjacket nest in your yard, but are frequented by their foragers, traps can be setup to draw them away from gathering areas. Traps can be purchased or made at home. Keep garbage can lids on tight and food cleaned up is enough to keep roving yellowjackets away.

Yellowjackets often will not sting a person unless the nest is agitated. If a yellowjacket colony is identified near a home or where it may come in contact with people (or nosy dogs), make sure to keep children out of that part of the yard and warn adults and neighbors.

Tips for controlling a yellowjacket nest:

  • Treat the nest during the late evening or early morning when yellowjackets are less active.
  • Avoid using a flashlight as this will draw them to you at night. If you need light, place a piece of red cellophane over the flashlight.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirt and pants. Tie sleeve and pants legs shut or pull socks over your pant legs.
  • Most treatments will take at least one day. If after a day there is still activity (yellowjackets still flying back and forth) repeat the treatment.

Exposed nests are those that are constructed above ground and may be hanging in a tree or attached the eaves. These are often out of reach and best treated with an aerosol spray labeled for wasps and hornets. Typically these contain the active ingredients tetramethrin or prallethrin. Spray directly on the entrance of the nest.

Ground nests can be controlled by placing an insecticide dust typically containing permethrin or carbaryl in and around the nest entrance at night. Yellowjackets will adhere to the insects as they enter and leave. Control is often achieved after a few days.

Concealed nests are those found inside wall voids of homes or attic spaces. These are often much more difficult to control and a pest management professional is recommended. Never close an opening to a concealed yellowjacket nest as the colony may chew through the drywall and enter the house!

It is unfortunate Murphy had to take the brunt of the stings before we found out what was the cause Though we are grateful it wasn't our children, as they have much less body hair to protect from stinging insects. Luckily, the dog is doing just fine the yellowjackets could only penetrate the fur on his ears and only got in two stings. I'd wager Murphy is feeling proud that he once again did his duty in protecting his family by acting as a pincushion for yellowjackets.