07/19/2024

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Now, if you mention yellow jackets in a casual conversation, you might get one of two responses. Someone might ask if you’re talking about the Showtime TV show. But the other may be fueling panic. Anyone who saw the movie “My Girl” as a kid will remember Macaulay Culkin’s character being swarmed by bees (not the yellow jacket, mind you – but the association is real). Almost everyone seems to know someone who is allergic to stings.

Whether or not a buzzing insect deserves to be called a threat depends a lot on how many times you’ve been up close and personal lately. But it’s true: If provoked, yellow jackets will sting – often over and over again – and summon many friends to join the fight. They can build nests that cover porch chairs and fill the interiors of abandoned cars. And now, thanks to mild winters and long, dry summers, people and yellow jackets will be meeting more often.


When a flock of yellow jackets interrupts your date
On a beautiful fall day in 1990, Tiffany Trent, now 48, and her then-boyfriend Andrew were driving along the Virginia section of the Blue Ridge Parkway when they decided to take a romantic stroll through the otters on a fire road near the peak, northeast of Roanoke. The couple found a place to sit in a nice clearing in the woods and unknowingly placed a towel directly on a leaf-covered underground yellow jacket nest.

As Tiffany got up to leave, her heel sank into the depression created by the nest and then stepped right into it. “A faint buzzing sound grew louder,” she says, as dozens of yellow jackets rolled off the ground. Bugs flew into her shoes and overalls, stinging her again and again. She and Andrew scrambled for safety. “He was chasing me through the woods, hitting me with a towel, trying to knock them over,” she recalls. As she ran, the yellow jacket and larvae in her shoes were squashed. “It’s like running snot in your shoes.”

Tiffany ran nearly a mile back to her car. “I’ve never run so fast in my life,” she says. “I was in a lot of pain,” but the adrenaline rush was the strongest part. “I would stand in front of the fire hose and get them off me.” Fortunately, she escaped without permanent damage. Even the relationship survived (Tiffany and Andrew married five years later).

Don’t let it bother you
Not all, or even most, encounters with a yellow jacket (a type of wasp) are that dramatic or dangerous. In fact, in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded only 74 deaths from exposure to “hornets, wasps and bees. (During the same period, 539 people died from falls from ladders.) Allergic reactions to insect bites affect only 5% of the population during their lifetime.

But no matter where you live, from the tundra of Alaska to the humid South, you’re likely to see more yellow jackets than in the past. That’s because, thanks to climate change, winters in some places are no longer as cold or long enough to control insect populations as they used to be.

To understand why milder winters mean more yellow jackets, you have to know something about their life cycle, says Jacqueline Serrano, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Wapato, Wash.

In spring, new yellow jacket queens begin nesting. Some yellow jackets nest in a burrow – an abandoned mole or snake hole, a crevice in a tree or fence – while others prefer life above ground, building paper structures that hang from branches like dangerous volleyballs. The first generation of yellow jackets, all female, grew up to become workers who procured meat* for their little sisters.

(*Yes, meat. Yellow jackets prey on caterpillars, grubs, and will even nibble on your burger for food. They transport the meat to the larvae in the hive, which digest it and secrete sugar to feed the worker ants. (Adults are always hungry, though, and will and can sip nectar or soda.)


Throughout the summer, the queens continue to lay eggs and by late summer and fall they begin to lay eggs that will become males and new queens that will fly off to mate. The males and workers then die in the winter, either from the cold or because there is no more food available. The new queens spend the winter in hiding somewhere. When spring comes, the young queens emerge and it’s time to do it all over again.

Or at least it used to be. These days, spring comes early and fall comes late, and not many yellow jackets die in the winter. For example, from 1980 to 2020, climate change has forced the growing season to extend by two weeks in 48 states in the U.S. mainland. Joel Voron, Col’s integrated pest management specialist The Williamsburg Foundation of Virginia, which manages pests that inhabit historic buildings and properties, says six years ago he was removing 15 to 20 yellow jacket nests a year. In 2021, he destroyed 35 nests. “We just don’t have cold winters like we used to,” he says.

With early spring and a long, dry summer, pregnant queens can start nesting earlier, allowing them to breed more and more workers who will stay out later and later in the year. More workers means larger nests. Nests that can survive a second year, called super nests, can reach epic proportions.

“You can get tens to hundreds of thousands of colonies,” says Charles Ray, an entomologist at Auburn University in Alabama. He says he’s seen colonies throughout the chair and one in an old car that was nearly 10 cubic feet. In those cases, new queens stay over the winter and are more numerous. “Each one produces the same number of eggs as her mother.”


Not in my backyard
While warmer temperatures have led to an increase in the number of yellow jackets, drought may help us increase our interaction with them. When wild vegetation dies due to lack of rain, yellow jackets and other insects will attack other food sources. “Home gardens, especially those that are irrigated, become one of the few oases where yellow jackets can go all summer to find the resources they are looking for,” said Gail Langellotto, an entomologist with the Oregon State Extension in Corvallis.

Even Alaska is suffering – climate change is happening faster there than anywhere else in the United States. “It’s like living in a science experiment,” says Jeffrey Demain, an allergist and immunologist at the University of Washington and the Alaska Immunology Center.


A case in point: Between 2001 and 2006, Demain tracked a 43 percent increase in Alaskans seeking treatment for insect bites, most of which came from yellow jackets. In some parts of the state, such as Kodiak in the southern Gulf, the increase was only 11 percent, from 437 to 487. But in Barrow, the northernmost community he studied, there were 16 reports in 2001 and 119 reports in 2006 – a 626 percent increase. In fact, in 2006, the city of Fairbanks cancelled all outdoor activities because of too many yellow jackets, and two people died from stings.

Even if the stings from yellow jackets aren’t fatal, they’re still unpleasant. Unlike bees that sting only once, yellow jackets can and often do sting multiple times, injecting venom each time. Justin O. Schmidt, in his book Wild Stings, describes the sting as a “searing, burning complex pain.

Tiffany Trent agrees. “To me, a bee sting feels like an electric shock,” she says. “But the yellow jacket is really painful. It’s like a constant burn.”

But the insects aren’t all bad. Yellow jackets “go after other insects, you know, insects that might be problematic, or sometimes just other native insects,” Serrano said. They can be placed around your garden to attack bugs that chew on your vegetables.


A deadly reaction to insect bites may make you want to use a mosquito net or invest in a blowtorch. But the first step in preventing stings is to stay away from yellow jackets in the first place. “As humans, we do a lot of things that really attract pests,” says Jody Green, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We provide them with so much food, open our cans for them to crawl in, and usually create buffets for them with our trash.”

Not leaving out food and trash helps keep insects away. In particular, rinse your recyclables, Warren says. Clearing fruit from trees and bushes can also keep unwanted visitors away. In drier areas, keeping irrigation and water features to a minimum can also prevent yellow jackets from appearing. Finally, avoid heavily sweet or floral-scented body products, Voron says. “If you smell like something sweet,” he says. “They’ll be on to you.”

If you encounter a yellow jacket, the first thing Voron and Ray stress is don’t slap it or trap it (translation: don’t anger the yellow jacket). Walk away is the way to go. Ray says there’s a myth that yellow jackets like to sting. “They don’t, they’re just defending their colony.” If you get stung once, leave and don’t come back. Ray explains that the sting of a yellow jacket gives you a chemical signal. “It says ‘sting here.'”

In August 2021, Jeanna Raye, a dental policy analyst in Youngsville, N.C., was mowing a nest of yellow jackets in her yard when the insects chased her back into the house. se, leaving her with a sting. After the incident, she took to an online community forum to ask neighbors how to get rid of the nest. “I got some of the most ridiculous answers,” she said. People suggested pouring gasoline into the hole to light matches, pouring in Pepsi and Mentos to explode and pouring boiling water.

But Warren, an integrated pest management specialist in Colonial Williamsburg, says these old wives’ tales aren’t the way to go. Dumping any liquid, especially if the nest is underground, can present a challenge. The liquid builds up at the bottom, but pours out of the hole before it fills the nest, leaving a lot of air and yellow jackets at the top. That’s why above-ground nests don’t flood in the rain.


If you’re planning to get rid of them, Voron says, “My main advice is: seek professional help.” Amateurs who are afraid of getting stung and aren’t sure what they’re doing can be a recipe for disaster.

Tiffany and Andrew, a couple who survived their date, took a different tack. They eventually settled into a house with a large garden in Blacksburg, Va. They raise chickens, ducks and even bees. Yellow jackets also returned to their lives. The family had several nests in the yard. One is under a tree, near where her two children play. “When it gets really hot and muggy in here, there are more of them,” Trent said. “And the kids sometimes run and take off without thinking about where they’re going.”

Last summer, Trent noticed a skunk digging out one of her nests. Some of Raye’s buzzing problems were also solved by a hungry skunk. “When I saw the skunk digging out a nest in the yard,” Trent says, “I just thought, ‘Hey, it’s like nature is doing its thing.'” The raccoons also like to eat yellow jacket larvae. Nature may sting at times, but it can also help.

Trent plans to take steps to remove the yellow jacket nests near the children’s play area, but she says the other two nests can stay. “They live here, too.”

Are they yellow jackets?
Research the differences between these easily confused insects.

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