Yellowjacket Identification, Facts, and Control Measures

Vespula pennsylvanica / maculiforna / germanica / vulgaris / squamosa and Dolichovespula

The dog days of summer…fresh water melon, ice cream, picnics, barbecue, festivals…and yes, yellowjackets.

Yellowjackets are exceptionally troublesome wasps. They can get highly aggressive, especially when the available food is getting low later in the season when their colonies are getting larger.

Close up of a yellowjacket on a comb style nest.

While it can be annoying when wasps hover around soda cans at picnics and barbecues, these insects can be downright dangerous: they are accountable for most of the stinging deaths in the US.

These wasps can keep stinging (unlike bees that die after one sting) plus large numbers of them can gang up on people.

Yellowjackets do have their uses – they prey on a large number of insects – including many that are damaging to agriculture.

However, their tendency to bite and sting generally makes them unwelcome residents of a yard or, perish the thought, a house!

We at Gardener’s Path will discuss the different species and approaches you can take to minimize the harm they could cause you.

Types of Yellowjackets

There are two genera of yellowjackets – Vespula and Dolichovespula – both in the family Vespidae – a huge family that primarily includes social wasps that live in colonies.

And within those genera, there are multiple species, some of the most common (to North America and Europe) being:

The western yellowjacket, Vespula pennsylvanica, is the most common type in the western US, nests in the ground, and is sometimes called the “meat bee.”

Western yellowjacket, Vespula pennsylvanica on fennel flowers. Side profile view.
Western yellowjacket, Vespula pennsylvanica.

The eastern yellowjacket Vespula maculiforna is its counterpart on the East Coast of North America and can have nests underground or in cavities such as hollows in trees.

Eastern yellowjacket Vespula maculiforna. Macor shot of the insect on a leaf. Oblique angle.
Vespula maculiforna or Eastern yellowjacket.

The German yellowjacket, Vespula germanica, is more of an urban wasp and frequently nests in houses! It only appeared in the US in 1975, but it has overtaken the eastern species as the dominant type in parts of the country.

Side profile of Vespula germanica German wasp, European Yellowjacket. Macro shot.
Vespula germanica known as the European wasp, German wasp, or German yellowjacket.

In contrast, Vespula vulgaris, or the common wasp, nests in rotten tree stumps at higher elevations.

Side profile of the Common Wasp, Yellowjacket, Vespula vulgaris, macro shot.
Vespula vulgaris known as the common wasp or the common yellowjacket.

Species of Dolichovespula nest in trees.

Dolichovespula sylvestris or the tree wasp is found in Europe but has close relatives in North America.

In the southeastern part of the US, the colony sizes of the groud nesting southern yellowjacket (Vespula squamosa) can reach 100,000 adult wasps due to the ability of the wasps to persist through the winter.

Southern yellowjacket Vespula squamosa collecting nectar on a marigold flower.
Vespula squamosa or the southern yellowjacket.

Identification, Life Cycle, and Biology

All of the yellowjackets share characteristics that distinguish them from bees.

They are medium sized and black with yellow stripes (with the exception of D. maculate). Due to its atypical black and white coloration, this yellowjacket is actually known as the bald-faced hornet.

Close up of bald faced hornet on a weathered wooden surface.
The bald faced hornet or Dolichovespula maculata, is actually a yellowjacket but lacks the characteristic coloring.

A critical difference is that all of these wasps have very tiny waists. They are not hairy, and they don’t have flattened hind legs to carry pollen like bees do.

Typically, workerss are about 1/2 inches long, while the queens are about 3/4 inches long.

Four median wasps (Dolichovespula media) on a small nest on a tree branch. Diffused background.
Median wasps (Dolichovespula media), like other Dolichovespula species, build small paper nests in tree branches.

The queens have a type of antifreeze in their blood, which enables them to survive the cold temperatures that kill the rest of the colony.

Macro shot of a A queen Vespula social wasp or yellowjacket on a white, isolated background.
A queen Vespula social wasp or yellowjacket.

A queen emerges in late winter to start a new colony. She creates a nest by chewing wood fiber into a pulp that is similar to paper.

The queen then lays a relatively small number of eggs that become larvae. These larvae are the first batch of workers.

Close up view of Dolichovespula wasps on nest with larvae and eggs.
A queen’s role is to lay eggs. Female workers carry out the duties of collecting food and defense.

These workers perform all of the functions for the nest except for laying eggs.

The southern yellow jacket (Vespula squamosa) usually builds nests in the ground. Due to higher outside temperatures and earth warming, most of the wasps survive the winter which leads to an incredible number of individuals living under one roof (err root?).

Colony Behavior Varies Throughout the Summer

The colonies grow rapidly between spring and midsummer.

The larvae need a lot of protein, and the workers typically forage for other insects.

A European Paper Wasp collecting nectar on wild carrot blooms.
Some species focus on nectar…

However, by the end of the summer, the colonies need a lot of sugar.

Macro shot of Vespula vulgaris eating a fly.
…while other focus on prey. Most are omnivorous to some extent.

While some types of yellowjackets only collect live prey, others (especially certain Vespula species, including the eastern yellowjacket and V. flavopilosa and V. vulgaris) often became scavengers.

Top down view of a yellowjacket feeding on a dead water snake
Most species will not turn down a free meal of fresh meat.

These scavengers are frequently the species that are pests at picnics and other outdoor activities that have food or soda cans present.

This is also the time of year that the hive produces new queens and males.

The old queen dies out, but the newly fertilized one will overwinter in a sheltered site such as under bark.

Typically, there is only one colony. However, the colonies can overwinter and become quite large where it is warm.

This was the case in Alabama in 2006 and appears to be happening again in 2019.

Agricultural Uses of Yellowjackets

Believe it or not, there is something good about these widely hated wasps.

Colonies eat tremendous amounts of insects during the initial part of their life cycle. For example, they are predators of such agricultural pests as armyworms and corn earworms.

However, these wasps can also be serious pests of fruit.

Three ripe plums hanging from a tree branch covered in yellowjackets.
These yellowjackets are trying to get into the sweet sugary juice on the inside…and covering these plums with stings with cause discoloration.

This can result in major losses in orchards, but these wasps will also attack the fruit in home gardens. Tomatoes, pears, apples, stone fruits, and grapes are targets for these pesky insects.

Injuries from the Stings

While all types sting when provoked, the German variety is exceptionally aggressive and will pursue anything or anyone disturbing their nests..

While one person might find a sting to be merely a painful annoyance, others are sensitive to the venom and can become ill.

More frequent stings result in greater sensitivity to the venom.

Be very careful about drinking from a soda can that could have a yellowjacket inside because stings inside the mouth can be life threatening.

Top down view of a yellow jacket on a soda can.
Always look before you drink at outdoor events!

The tendency of these wasps to sting in large numbers can make these stings a highly serious matter.

As mentioned, most of the deaths from stings in the US are due to yellowjackets, and most fatalities occur within an hour of being stung.

There can be a highly dangerous reaction to the venom that not even all doctors know about.

A large number of stings can introduce a lot of foreign protein into a person’s body and also cause tissue damage because of destructive enzymes in the venom.

All this debris and waste products can overwhelm the kidneys, causing blockages, kidney failure, and possibly even the need for dialysis!

If you have a strong allergic reaction after being stung, you should seek medical help immediately. Symptoms include hives, extensive swelling, dizziness, wheezing, or difficult swallowing.

How to Minimize the Numbers of Yellowjackets in Your Yard

Some people are avid about destroying the nest during the wasps’ active season.

Dousing them with gasoline or a hose is not a good idea and is a way to get stung multiple times.

Avoidance is Your Best Bet

Now that you are aware of how serious theri stings can be, hopefully you want to minimize your exposure to these hurtful insects.

Verticle macro photograph of a yellowjacket looking into the lens of the camera.

You should be wary of small patches of ground with no vegetation – such areas can harbor underground nests.

However, when foraging, yellowjackets are away from their nests, they are much less aggressive and usually won’t sting unless you provoke them.

Stay calm and collected and do not swat at the insect.

Lure Traps

While spraying the nests can range from intimidating to downright dangerous, there are some types of traps you can set up to catch these wasps and put them out of commission.

This approach should be restricted to yellowjackets and not used with other kinds of wasps.

Lure traps are the easiest types to use and can be purchased at many retail stores or online.

RESCUE Non-Toxic Reusable Trap for Yellowjackets via Amazon

These kinds of traps will reduce the number of foraging insects but won’t control large numbers of yellowjackets.

The most common type of lure is heptyl butyrate, but this chemical primarily attracts the western yellowjacket and not the other species.

You can add to the lure to help it attract other the other varities.

For example, adding meat like chicken will help them attract the German yellowjacket and V. vulgaris. You should frequently replace the meat, since these insects don’t like rotting meat.

University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service experts Drs. Karen M. Vail and John A. Skinner recommend using fruit juice or jelly to attract them.

Also, check the lures periodically to make sure they are still working and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations about replacing them.

If you are using a lure trap in your backyard, put it along the edge of the property and as far away as you can from areas like your patio!

They will typically travel up to 1/4 mile for food.

Water Traps

You can make this kind of trap yourself using a 5-gallon bucket, protein bait, such as ham, fish, turkey, or liver, and a string.

You should fill the bucket with soapy water. Be sure and put a screen over it, so animals won’t abscond with the meat.

After the insect removes the protein, it flies down and drowns.

This type of trap will catch some foragers, although not huge amounts of them.

However, it can be very useful for catching the queen in the late winter or early spring.

Sanitation

This low-tech technique can go a long way toward reducing the threat of marauding wasps and hornets of all sorts.

Keep your food outside covered until you need it. Clean up spills promptly. Put tight-fitting, self-closing lids on your trashcans.

Put a plastic liner in your can and empty and clean it often.

Repellants

While mosquito repellant won’t do you any good, you can make your own yellowjacket repellant out of water and ammonia.

Add about 6 ounces of ammonia to a gallon of water. Then sponge it onto eating areas and treat the trashcans with it.

This solution will help mask the odors of the food and should result in lower populations of these unwelcome visitors.

Destruction of the Nests

You can find instructions on how to destroy nests throughout the internet. However, this can be a dangerous practice.

The opening of a large, paper type yellowjacket nest with workers flying in and out.

While there are strong aerosol products that you can use, and even ones that claim to freeze the wasps, these pests will still try to attack you.

Ortho Home Defense Hornet & Wasp Killer via Amazon

Even if you wait and come back the next day, you may be faced with “partially intoxicated, agitated wasps” some distance from the nest.

If you do go this route, wear heavy protective clothing like those of beekeepers, including gloves and a veil over your face.

Be Careful with Your Flashlight

Experts recommend treating the nest at night when the wasps are less easily provoked.

Be careful not to shine your flashlight into the nest, so you won’t provoke the wasps.

You can protect yourself by putting red cellophane or acetate over the lens. That type of light doesn’t agitate the yellowjackets as much.

And consider putting your flashlight on the ground.

Insecticidal Dust

You can buy wasp and hornet aerosol sprays, but some people find that an insecticidal dust works really well.

If you don’t have a duster, you can fill an empty detergent bottle half full and use that. Put a few pebbles at the bottom to keep the dust from caking.

The formulations endiocarb (Ficam®) or pyrethrins and silica gel (Drione®) have been found to be effective.

Evergreen Pyrethrum Insecticide Dust via Amazon

If there is more than one opening, you should seal the other ones before you start your assault.

And then seal the opening once you have applied the insecticide!

Outsource to Professionals

These stinging insects are notoriously defensive when protecting their nest.

This might be a prudent time to hire a pest professional to have them do the job for you.

A dead yellowjacket on a white, isolated background.
Sorry Charlie, sometimes what needs to be doing had to be done. You pose a threat to me or mine and you are a gonner.

In some parts of California, personnel from your local mosquito and vector control district can take care of the nests for you.

And if you encounter one of those super nests proliferating in Alabama this year that can contain 15,000 wasps, you will absolutely want to seek help from professional pest control experts.

Kill the Queen Before She Creates More Workers

Just like chess, you want to capture the queen. Only this is no game, and you want to kill her!

The best time to do this is when she emerges in the spring to find a new place to nest.

Once she starts laying eggs, it will take a month for them to hatch, so you have ample time to strike.

Potential nest sites include:

  • Rodent burrows that are uninhabited
  • Dense shrubs
  • Clustered tree branches
  • Garages
  • Sheds
  • Houses:
  • Attics
  • Behind wall siding
  • Under eaves or porches
  • In hollow floors and walls

You should take a three-step approach to identify the site of the new nest:

  1. Try to identify nest sites and queens in their nest-hunting flights by regularly scouting your property
  2. Take preventative measures. Fill rodent burrows will soil. Screen in places like openings into your house, garage, or shed.
  3. If you find a nest, kill the queen with a fly swatter!  And then dispose of the nest. You must proceed in that order, or the queen will attack you while she tries to protect her nest. (If you are too afraid to do this, set a trap for her.)

Yellowjackets Can be Too Much of a Good Thing

At least in the beginning of the season, these omnivorous insects help farmers by eating large quantities of agricultural pests.

However, their tendency to sting repeatedly in large numbers makes them very unwelcome guests and potentially fatal entities.

You can use lures in your yard to trap some of the foraging insects.

Spraying nests can be fraught with danger but tracking down the queen in the spring before she has created a new colony is the perfect time to eliminate her and the potential colony.

Macro shot of a yellowjacket wasp looking at the camera.

The rise of super nests, such as those appearing in Alabama at the time of this writing, are alarming harbingers of what can happen as the climate warms.

Seek professional pest control help if you encounter one of these monstrosities.

Let us know if you had a memorable experience with yellowjackets in the comments.

And if you found value in this guide, be sure to check out some of our other pest guides:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photo via Ortho, Resecue, and MGK. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Helga George, PhD

One of Helga George’s greatest childhood joys was reading about rare and greenhouse plants that would not grow in Delaware. Now that she lives near Santa Barbara, California, she is delighted that many of these grow right outside! Fascinated by the knowledge that plants make chemicals to defend themselves, Helga embarked on further academic study and obtained two degrees, studying plant diseases as a plant pathology major. She holds a BS in agriculture from Cornell University, and an MS from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Helga then returned to Cornell to obtain a PhD, studying one of the model systems of plant defense. She transitioned to full-time writing in 2009.

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