Yellow Jackets: They arrive in late summer,
turning your barbecues and picnics into fierce swatting contests. If you make the scary mistake of stepping on one of their ground nests, you can end up being chased for up to a quarter mile by a squad of angry, yellow-stripped barbed missiles intent on inflicting serious bodily harm. Joking aside, they have been known to kill people and animals when they attack in full force.
Yes, the yellow jackets are back, and about this time of year bee forums are buzzing with concerns about keeping bee hives safe from the black-and-yellow death that is the yellow jacket. Each year, in my western Washington area, beekeepers lose hives to these hungry creatures, sometimes in a matter of hours. I can think of few things as horrid for a beekeeper as coming home to a hive that was thriving only hours before, to find it crawling with thousands of yellow jackets, bees all dead or devoured, honey plundered.
Although consistently mislabeled “bees” by the media—thereby giving our gentle girls an unwarranted reputation for meaness—yellow jackets belong to the wasp family. Like honey bees, yellow jackets are social insects who build large nests to rear their young. Unlike honey bees, yellow jackets generally do not overwinter in their hives, leaving the next generation to the late-summer, newborn queens who will mate and then hibernate in some protected nook through the winter months.
Come late fall, the yellow jacket workers and old queen perish, and the nest is abandoned and not used again. So these wasps need to build up quickly in the summer months, exploiting many sources for food. Adult yellow jackets eat sweets: fruit, nectar, your picnic watermelon. They gather protein for their young: insects, your bees, your hotdog. Come late summer when many new queens are being reared, the need for protein in the hive increases, and this is when you find these wasps around your beehives and barbecues.
So, now that I have your hair standing on end, let’s back up a bit, take a deep breath, and unpack this potential threat to your bees.
First, before you consider management options for these wasps, you need to know what is—and is not—a yellow jacket. All around the country live a variety of of paper wasps. These unassuming garden helpers are often called “umbrella wasps” for their habit of creating small nests under eaves, porch railings, or bush branches that look like a small, paper umbrellas with hexagon cells beneath. This is not the beginning of a huge yellow jacket nest. It is the full-sized home of these black and yellow creatures who raise a small nest of perhaps a hundred baby wasps.
Umbrella wasps are remarkably unaggressive, stinging only when sat upon (ask me how I know), grabbed, or if you seriously threaten their nest. I have untold numbers of these wasps dangling their small parasols from the roof of my bee shed, and they live comfortably and peacefully with our honey bees. Sometimes in the early spring, I find them nestled next to the hive entrance, soaking up the warmth emanating from within. If I find them inside on our windows, I carry them bare-handed outside, but if the day is cool, they will snuggle in my palm and resist leaving. I love these little gals and shudder when I see photos of them posted on bee sites under headings like “Yellow Jackets! Kill the bastards!” I always post a reply: “Please, know your wasps…”
Above is a photo of a paper wasp and a yellow jacket. Note the thick body and shorter legs of the yellow jacket, and her flatter wings. She also has a thicker waist, and is considerably larger over all.
Perhaps you have had bee hives for a few years and have noticed that yellow jackets target one hive over another. How do they determine which hive, which bees, to plunder? Like our honey bees, yellow jackets are governed by pheromones. They use chemical cues to target a hive.
In the scent that wafts from the hive entrance, yellow jackets can read evidence of weakness, illness, stress. If they detect such scents, they will then attempt to enter the hive. If they are able to get past the guards fairly easily, they will crawl up the face of the hive, mark it with a pheromone, then leave to bring back thousands of reinforcements.
If the hive radiates the aromas of strength and robust health, the yellow jackets will work the ground around the hive in groups of two to ten or more, scavenging dead and dying bees, and occasionally grabbing bees on the entry board or in flight.
Recently, I was talking to my friend and bee guru Michael Joshin Thiele (www.gaiabees.com) about yellow jackets in his part of the country (Northern California) and Michael said this: “Susan, yellow jackets are not a predator of the honey bee. They are an indicator species. Yellow jackets attack the weak hives.” I found his information confounding at first, as I’ve had many beekeepers tell me that their strongest hive was decimated by yellow jackets, but I have come to believe that we are not as sensitive as yellow jackets to the true health of our hives. We can’t judge health at the pheromone level. At least I can’t.
Yet I would add this caveat to Michael’s observations: These days, all our bees are weakened to a greater or lesser extent. All of them. So in these times, I consider yellow jackets a danger. Anything from a queen failure to varroa, to viruses, to the stress of hive relocations, new queen insertions, honey collection, heavy pesticide residues, and more can make a hive a target.
By knowing the habits of yellow jackets, we can learn to manage them, and limit their destructive capacities. These tips will keep your hives safe:
Get the Queens
In early spring, yellow jacket queens are searching for nesting sites. Yellow jackets have a much smaller foraging radius than honey bees—only around a thousand feet—so these queens you see in spring are looking to make a home close by. Any yellow jacket queen you dispatch means 10,000 less wasps at your hive entrances. In my yard, I find them visiting my bee watering sites or honey feeders. Friends find them in woodpiles, or even nestled beneath hive lids.
Wherever I find them, I act fast. I don’t hurry to find a swatter. I mash them with my fingers. So far, I’ve never been stung this way. They have to curl their tails up to sting or reach upward to bite. If I smash down, they are done. Less violent means of extermination include yellow jacket pheromone traps you can get at any hardware or garden store.
Fake Them Out
Wasps, including yellow jackets, are very territorial, and will not choose to build nests where other wasps have built. Knowing this, you can create (or buy at any garden store) fake hornet nests that mimic the balloon-shaped paper nests of bald-faced hornets. The favorite food of the bald-faced hornet is yellow jackets! I’ve read that in areas with high yellow jacket populations, the paper coating of the huge hornet nests is a greenish yellow—the yellow being the coloring from the bodies of yellow jackets.
Two years ago, my granddaughter Taylor and I made a hornet nest from a balloon, butcher paper, and wall-paper paste. We painted it with water color paints, and my crafty friend Debbie made a few fake hornets out of polymer clay, which we wired to the “nest.” I hung the nest under the cover of the bee yard, and took it down in the late fall. This spring, I hung the nest out again in a different spot. I don’t know if I can totally credit this craft project with the success I’ve had, but I’ve had very few yellow jackets in our yard these past two years.
Become a Quick Draw
To take care of small clusters of yellow jacket marauders who appear at my hives, I keep a bottle of half water, half dishwashing liquid up in the apiary. I’m a pretty good shot with this water gun, and one squirt with the soapy water interferes with a wasp’s ability to breathe. They die in seconds. So, on hot Indian summer days, I play Billy the Kid up in the apiary.
Or Just Use Traps
It is simple to make or purchase yellow jacket traps. But if I find that I am catching hundreds of the critters, I start looking around my yard for hidden nests, and I ask my immediate neighbors to search their yards, as well. One year—before the making of my balloon wasp nest—our dog Mazel Tov was unlucky enough to find a huge nest of yellow jackets behind an old honey suckle vine. By the time I got him into the house, we were both covered in stings. Did I tell you that—unlike honey bees—yellow jackets can sting over and over again? And bite, too?
If You Find a Yellow Jacket Nest
There are lots of tried and true ways to destroy a nest of yellow jackets. The most effective is a professional exterminator, which is what I use when I find them. Others have successfully poured hot soapy water into the ground nests. Some pour gasoline or kerosene into the hole, and then light it. This scares me. The yellow jackets are bad enough. I don’t need explosions in my back yard.
Another eradication method involves simply placing a clear glass bowl over the nest, making certain that the edges are snug. If the nest has only one entrance/exit, the wasps will try over and over to leave the nest and will eventually expire in the heat.
Because yellow jackets bring home food to the hive, it is possible to place tainted baits that will destroy the colony when these morsels are carried home. One method is to place out meat (bacon, cat food, tuna, or chicken are all good choices) and lace the bait with baking soda, which will wreak havoc with the wasp digestive system. Be sure these lures are out of reach of your pets.
Another fatal bait lure is meat mixed with one packet of Front Line-brand liquid flea treatment. It contains a chemical that kills yellow jackets very quickly. Again, be darn sure it is not accessible by anything but the yellow jackets. My brother tried this a few weeks ago, hanging a can of laced tuna from a thin tree branch in a net bag. The yellow jacket nest was no longer active by the following morning. This is a potentially dangerous undertaking if you do not think it through. You do not want your pet or some harmless wild creature killed.
For all our fear of them, it pays to remember that wasps and hornets are extremely beneficial insects. They carry off debris, clean up fallen fruit, hunt many of the bugs and insects that munch in our gardens, and keep insect numbers in healthy balance. They really are the good guys.
The first best choice in life is always benevolence. If your yellow jacket numbers are not posing a threat to your hives, try the live-and-let-live approach. Graduate to more destructive methods only if you need to. Just like our bees, yellow jackets are just small creatures trying to get by in a difficult world.
Thanks so much for the info about umbrella wasps- I had no idea they weren’t aggressive!
Yes, JW—it takes a bit of time to be able to sort the wasps into the friendly and not-so-friendly gals. The umbrella wasps are such sweeties. This week, I’m busy watching a gentle group of mud daubers collecting little balls of mud to make their small nests. Sometimes you’ll find these little mud mounds on the inside of your hive lids. No problem! Did you know that more than 130 creatures make their homes in a healthy hive? It really DOES take a community to raise a bee!
Very informative. Thank you! I knew the suckers could sting and re-sting but I was unaware of their affinity for my bees. There is a nest at the edge of my bond fire pile. It is getting torched. It is too close to my bee area.
By the way, as much as I don’t like the bald faced wasp nest on my back porch (Why of all places would they choose an unprotected spot like the corner of my deck by the rail?), I never fail to be fascinated watching them gather flies at the barn while I’m doing chores.
Bald Faced Hornets: My bee mentor used to dispatch these large wasps until the day she was milking her cow and watched a small gathering of these hornets land on her cow’s back and proceed to snatch biting flies by the dozens.
The yellow jackets and bald face wasps are wrecking havoc in my garden and beehives! There are so many of them it’s just a matter of time before they start attacking my hives. Thank you so much for your suggestions. I will be buying a squirt gun and will place a can of tuna w/baking soda in a protected area of the garden soon!
Good luck protecting your girls, Vicki. Forewarned is forearmed. This is a good time of the year to really shrink down your hive entrances. Close them off with screen so you don’t cut down ventilation, and make the opening big enough for one bee. There will be a traffic backup at the entrance, but it is very hard for yellow jackets to get through a crowd by the door.
Susan Chernik McElroy,
Thank you for this informative, precise, excellent article on dealing with yellow jackets, distinguishing them from paper wasps. So helpful! I do not have bee hives yet, but am planning for them. I look after dogs in many rural settings, and have been on the business end of a yellow jacket’s sting many a time. ‘Way more painful than a bee sting!
Annie, I, too, find the sting of a yellow jacket far worse than bee venom. The best yellow jacket prevention I’ve found is getting the queens early in the spring. I put out honey for my bees as soon as they are flying in the spring, and the yellow jacket queens come to eat the honey, where I squish them. My bee mentor killed seven this spring. I found and killed four. This made a HUGE difference in my yj load this summer.
I was just given a hive of Honey Bees, Zone 8 in Oregon.
The person giving the bees, gave me no information on how to get these sweet bees through the Winter. I am brand new at this. I know nothing.
The hive came in a “Super”, with a solid box, with the top totally screwed down.
Do I open the box to see if they have any food for the Winter? Or do I just feed them all Winter long?
Also do I need to add a smaller box on top? With Honey comb racks?
Please give instructions as to what to do.
Thank You for knowing and Sharing.
G, unfortunately none of my experience has been with Langstroth hives, which is what you have. Opening this skrewed-tight hive will not help you much if you don’t know what you are looking at when you get inside. There are also considerations as to weather and time of day for opening and inspecting. Because you are in Oregon, I’m going to suggest you join the PUB (Portland Urban Beekeepers) FaceBook page. It is a really active and large group, and I would suggest you ask if there is anyone who lives in your area who would come come and help you figure out exactly what you have in your super. The members are very friendly and helpful.
I really liked your post. Really Cool.
Wonderfully informative article. I am printing it off for future reference. I no longer have a cat or dog and the local animal rescue thrift shops would not accept expired Front line products. And I did not want to just dump in the trash. I think this is a higher good, although certainly “off-label” so using at own risk.
Help! We have been storing a stack of old beehives in our barn and just found them FULL of BUMBLEBEES!!
Can you tell us how to eradicate them safely and is there a way to do so without ruining the hives for future honeybees?
My husband considered diesel fuel or gasoline which will kill the bumble bees but we are afraid it will ruin the hives for honey bees, which we would like to have one day.
BTW, we do not have bee suits or protective gear.
Thank you in advance for your thoughts and advice.
Thanks for all the great information!
Your welcome, Mark! In my own yard right now, I find a steady but small stream of yellow jackets cruising beneath my lowest hive, my top bar. I’ve found this summer that the bamboo tube entrances I am using on all my hives really keep the yellow jackets out. Not one can get through that round gauntlet of bees! Also, after four years of use, I believe I can say with some certainty that my fake hornets nest I made with a ballon and paper mache’ has really made a difference over the years. I have less and less of them.
So the umbrella wasps are not harmful and can be left with the honeybees?
Julia, yes, the little umbrella wasps can build on the side of a hive if they want. They are harmless.
I know this is an old article but I wanted to inform you that you have many facts wrong in this article.
For one thing decoy nests don’t work. Wasps have and will build nests right next to our even right on another nest.
For another thing it is super rare for ANY yellow jacket spiecies to attack and kill a hive. Usually it is actually a very weak Hive or dead even and the wasps are just being opportunistic and taking the honey ( and perhaps the don’t bees. They are guilty by being the first to the scene not through proof of predation.
Very rarely can a yellow jacket nest have the numbers it takes to defeat a hive of honey bees. And then it’s usually in the southern United States where nests can rarely be perennial.
Please don’t act upon hearsay. And please share if you have EVER had or witnessed a honey bee hive actually for sure attacked by wasps.
Not including a recently dead by other means Hive.
I am not spreading hearsay. I and my beekeeping friends have all lived through yellow jacket attacks on hives, and watched plentiful hives collapse in days or even sometimes hours. And we’ve ALL seen wasps avoid building near our decoy traps.
I have problems with yellow jacket nests inside the house. Currently have one in the attic of a rental property with 2 small children. Their entrance is through an attic vent. It’s an old house and the screens probably need replaced. However, I first need to eradicate the nest. I’ve had good success with Tempo dust, but I’m afraid that if I dust the entrance, they will dig a new one through the ceiling. Therefore, I love your idea of tainted bait. I need a little more guidance though. Such as how much baking soda or Frontline for 3 oz of tuna and how close to the nest to place the bait. Also, what type of container do I make for the bait? Thanks so much.
Barbara, I’ve placed the can of tuna/cat food in a plastic milk container with a hole cut into the side. Then, I hang the container near the nest by it’s handle. It does not have to be “right near” the nest, as they will easily smell it. When I use the flea poison, I use a whole “dose.” For baking soda, I’d look for amounts online.
Yep, one greeted me at the backdoor this morning. Thank you for the distinction between the two flyers. In the future no harm will come to the gentle umbrella wasp.
Happy White History Month!
Thanks for the great article! So- yellow Jacket traps are really this selective? In that if you put one out you’ll only really catch YJs in them? Any particular brand or type you recommend? I think if so this is the approach I would like to take. Also as a preventative one.
Hi Holly….Yes, the Yellow Jacket traps are that selective. I use the Rescue resuable trap with the 10 week attractant. They are most effective when set out at the beginning of May (in Colorado) to trap the new season of queens before their first set of workers are mature. After that, the queen never leaves the nest and the nest will survive as long as she does. On average, in my very urban residential neighborhood in Denver, I catch around 50 queens during the month of May. After the queens hunker down, the traps are not that useful. They will still catch workers, but not enough to dent the population.
Thanks for responding to this, Holly. Yes, early spring is the very best time to catch yellow jacket queens. Each queen you dispatch means you are deleting around 5,000 yellow jackets from your yard later in the summer. This summer is proving to be the worst yellow jacket season anyone can recall. With my little decoy hive, and tubes in my hive entrances, I am not being hit as hard as other beekeepers I know. Hope it stays that way!
Thank you! Excellent article. I didn’t realize the difference in wasps being sweet. I wish the public could be better educated about them
I don’t like using the sprays as I worried honey bees could also die from the residual. I keep a butterfly net from the $ store for late summer, catching them and then stepping on them in the net. I have most likely killed many wasps too. I be more careful now:- )
Hi Kat: Yes, sadly, nobody has much of a chance to learn about these insects. They are just the bugs we live with, but never learn about, except for where to aim the can of Raid. I have dozens of wasp nests of various kinds in my yard from mud daubers, umbrella wasps, and grass carrying wasps. I treasure their presence in my yard.Yesterday, I watched the grass carrying wasps carrying in grasshoppers and katydids to feed their larval young. Garden helpers!
[…] are not bees, they are wasps. Don’t get them confused. Learn how to tell them apart. Please don’t call them meat bees, and try to educate anyone who uses that […]
Hi.. May I ask a question? Looks like yellow jackets built a nest inside underneath of house roof.. I wonder if I need to get rid of them or leave alone over the winter. do they die or leave to other place over or after the winter? Will it be their permant place? Please advise.. if you can email me, I’d much appreciate it. Thanks
I can’t tell which I have on my front porch and I only have an upward view of them. They appear to be stickier no slender waist and about half are mostly black while the others are striped yellow and black. What are they
Those are yellow jackets. Bees just don’t make a nest on porches like that.
I appreciate the pointers about Yellow Jackets.
Until I sat down & read this I was about to mistake umbrella wasps for yellow jackets. It was the picture that di9d it – they are impossible to confuse.
A related comment: I suffered a disturbing incident a few days ago thanks to a hummingbird feeder – the fancy glass kind you buy in a store. I found more than a dozen dead honey bees floating inside of it. Honey bees have never come around before – this was the first summer I hung one on the deck. I will never buy another hummingbird feeder. My homemade are better b/c I can poke tiny holes in the bottom (of a plastic water bottle) & only ants can get in & well … who cares about a few dead ants? ( I am fascinated by ants – but they have got to be one of the dominant animal species on the planet & the loss of a few mean s nothing, except maybe metaphysically.)
Again, thanks so much for the useful information & photo comparison. Many sites fall down in the latter category, which is so crucial actually – a picture being worth 1000 words.
I live in zone 9 (CA) at moderately high elevation and sometimes we get unseasonably warm weather in January or February, with periodic frosts through early April. With that in mind, what is the best time of the year to put out a store-bought yellow jacket lure? Supposedly the queens emerge in Spring to build their nest and so I’ve read that this is the best time of year to lure the queen into a trap, which prevents a colony from establishing in the first place. The question is, how does one tell when the queen will emerge from hibernation to begin looking for a nest site? And once she selects a nest site, how often does she emerge after that?
The folks at keeping backyard bees just re-ran your article on YJs. Great stuff especially since we are also W. Washington hobby bee keepers. Similar observations about the YJs and them ground hunting around and under our Top Bar Hives. Been keeping both pheromone and protein baits out BUT the whole baiting with Frontline is the first I’ve heard as an option. And since we have Livestock Guardian Dogs, we always have some Frontline in hand. Finding the actual YJ nests is more of the “accidental” event than a real hunt and search given our environment. So gonna try it. Thanks for the tip. Taking stuff BACK to the nest is a perfect option for us.
Excellent article! I’ve been trying to convince my husband for weeks that he is mis-identifying our paper-wasps, and their nests, as yellow jackets. I sent him the picture and your sweet story. Hopefully an outside source will carry more weight! Lol!
If you are stung by large amounts of these or any bees, contact your hospital emergency dept. It can be fatal. My husband ran over a nest of yellow jackets(we believe), with a lawn mower. Afterwards my daughter & I tweezed hundreds of stingers off of him. He was complaining of a headache, so I contacted the emergency dept. He was given a choice, have someone drive him to the hospital or they’d send an ambulance. The stinger’s poisons build up in your system over time and easily counteracted with the proper I.V.
I live in Bandon, Oregon. I cannot find out when “spring” begins so I can set out my W H Y wasp traps to catch the yellow jacket Queens. Is it March 1, April 1? Very frustrating! I get so many yellow jackets because I live next to a wooded lot. White faced hornets too. I can’t even enjoy my yard in summer without them landing on my arms (and staying there).
I seem to be the unlucky exception to have my being taken over by yellow jackets. I am located in southern New Hampshire and replaced my queen 2 weeks ago. I have been checking the have for new brood, but each time finding dozens of my bees dead at the front of the hive. This morning I discovered lots of feeding activity, but most were yellow jackets attacking my bees. I opened my hive to discover almost no activity in the hive. Does not appears to be any YJ inside and very few honey bees. Please suggest any possible actions I can take, or should I abandon all hope and begin fresh nex spring?