Sunday, September 10, 2023

Anarchy is Bad for Picnics


I’m not one to shed a tear when authoritarian rulers die, but once they’re gone, picnics become a lot more dangerous. As summer wanes, the original queen in every yellowjacket wasp colony dies – having a few thousand babies in the course of one season is enough to tire any Queen Mum to death.

The colony raises new queens as the old one starts to forget the names of her offspring and where she left her reading glasses. But when the feisty new regals emerge, the young queens
run off with the nearest male wasps for a mating orgy, after which they hide in rotten logs or nearby attics for the winter.

With no one to keep the workers in line, social order disintegrates within the colony. All summer long, yellowjackets are busy with assigned chores like killing deer flies and tent
caterpillars to feed the colony, pollinating flowers, and stinging anyone who ventures close to their nest or even looks at them askance. Yep, once Queen Mum expires, they do what they darn well please.

And what pleases unsupervised rank-and-file wasps is crash-landing in our food and exploring the insides of soft-drink cans. They neglect their chores and go on a sugar binge. This is why yellowjackets and other colony-forming wasps seem “aggressive” in the fall – they’re gorging on sweets ’cause no one’s minding them.

Unlike honey bees, wasps can sting endlessly, so it’s good to know some defensive tactics. Wear light-colored clothing, as dark or bright colors attract them. If you’re headed to an
outdoor event, forget the perfume, cologne, and strong shampoo. These products will get you more attention from wasps than from anyone you were hoping to meet. And keep your drink covered to save you from being stung on the mouth (and possibly from worse things as well).

Don’t shoo away yellowjackets, as this can provoke them. If one lands on you it’ll move on shortly, but if you can’t wait, flick rather than swat it. Once a wasp stings it releases an alarm
pheromone that signals others to attack, so take cover if you do get stung.

When I was a kid, ground-nesting yellowjackets were “managed” by someone’s dad pouring gas or maybe kerosene in the hole and lighting it. This was quite entertaining, though not always effective. We now know that when gas or oil gets spilled on the ground, it can pollute groundwater. It doesn’t take much in sandy soils or where the water table is shallow.

Here’s a better idea: If you find a ground nest, watch from a safe distance until you locate the entrance. At dawn, place a large glass bowl that you just borrowed over the yellowjackets’
door. It need not fit tight to the ground, but in uneven terrain, bank sand around the rim to fill gaps. The whole colony will eventually emerge and fly circles inside a clear bowl until they die.

Please note we do NOT have Asian or so-called murder hornets! Any oversize wasps you may encounter are cicada-killers which do not make colonies, or attack humans. Take heart –
yellowjackets will die with the onset of freezing weather. All except next year’s authoritarian queens that will hibernate until spring.

Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension educator. He likes picnics and wasps, but separately.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

6 Responses

  1. Randy Fredlund says:

    Huh. Where’d my large glass bowl go?

    Thanks for the tip.

  2. Rob says:

    Nothing a good can of Raid wasp & hornet spray won’t take care of!!

  3. Pete says:

    Thanks for the article. Yes, I also remember the pouring gas thing though as I have aged I have found that I have come to believe that every creature has it’s right to exist and live out it’s life without me destroying it. I can also appreciate so that some of nature can be quite dangerous to us as well. So I keep my distance whenever possible.

    Pete E’town

  4. Boreas says:

    A bumper crop this year on the perimeter posies/shrubs around my house. 3 separate nests had to be dealt with. Got stung a coupla times and was quite paranoid for a while. Bumper crop of skeeters as well, but that’s a discussion for another day.

  5. Pat Boomhower says:

    The remedy for a ground nest brought back a memory of my Mom. She absolutely despised japanese beetles. She would range around our 3 acre yard with a twig and coffee can containing a couple inches of gas or kerosene. An afternoon spent around our yard knocking those “damn things” into the can would end in the driveway where she’d light it up. A gleeful victory dance was part of the celebration of their flaming demise

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