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Blane Klemek: Wasps, yellowjackets & hornets, oh my!

Horse and deer flies are persistent insect pests during a relatively short period of time each summer. And while they are generally easy to deal with, and their bites do hurt — nothing compares to the sting of a hornet.

While clearing one of my wooded foot-trails recently of encroaching hazel brush, I made the fatal mistake of snipping one such shrub that was adorned with a paper nest (which I did not see until it was too late!) made by none other than the notorious bald faced hornet.  Their name alone is menacing enough.

At first I thought I was being swarmed by especially active horse or deer flies, but it soon became abundantly clear that the “bites” were nasty stings being delivered by very angry hornets informing me that I had knocked down their home. A few seconds and dozens of yards later they and their broken home were far behind me.

There is definitely something ominous about the appearance of yellowjackets and hornets.  While the potential of getting stung by these insects always exists whenever we encounter them, these relatives of bumblebees and honeybees are really very fascinating creatures.

Both yellowjackets and hornets are “hymenopterans,” a diverse order of insects that includes wasps, ants, and bees, too.  Most everyone has had at least one painful experience with a bee or wasp.

The yellowjacket, also called a wasp or hornet, is just one of the many species from the order that will sting if provoked or are defending a nest or food source. 

The yellowjacket is considered a social wasp and is differentiated from a bee by the absence of setae or hair. Further differences include the absence of pollen sacs on their hind legs, such as those that worker honeybees possess.

Worker yellowjackets, the wasp we normally observe (as opposed to queens and drones of the species) are also leaner looking than bees and are colored with alternating bands of yellow and-or black on the abdomen. 

Though hard to believe for some people, yellowjackets are very beneficial insects to have around.  While preferring natural foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates such as wild fruits, plant juices, and nectar, in addition to consuming insect-pests that are harmful to garden vegetables and orchard fruits, late summer and autumn is also a time when these species of wasps, as their diet changes, find themselves in frequent conflict with humans. 

Anyone sipping on a soft drink, for example, or having a picnic, or filling up a hummingbird feeder with sweet sugar-water during these times of year, will undoubtedly have unwanted encounters with yellowjackets and hornets.

These insects are as unyielding as they come when it comes to satiating their sweet tooth. 

This can be extremely frustrating, and sometimes torturous if one such angry yellowjacket decides to sting.  Unlike honeybees that are equipped with barbed stingers that detach from their abdomens after use and thus can be used only once (ultimately killing the insect), yellowjackets and hornets can sting multiple times with their smooth stingers that remain attached to their bodies — another not-so-comforting difference between wasps and bees.

Such as it is, certain precautions should be considered when working or playing around sites known to harbor yellowjackets and hornets.

Be careful where you walk in the woods and be mindful where your feet are placed when navigating dense vegetation and woody undergrowth. 

Because a swallowed yellowjacket or hornet may possibly lead to a stung throat, which could potentially become life threatening for some people, cans or bottles of soft drinks that are open and unattended should be inspected prior to drinking.

Moreover, keep the lids of garbage receptacles closed tightly at all times.  Once a food source is discovered, more and more yellowjackets and hornets will come for the bounty.

Another very common relative of yellowjackets is the bald-faced hornet.  If you feed hummingbirds, you probably have seen this insect at your feeders, too.

They’re larger than yellowjackets and are mostly black in color with whitish markings.  These are the species of hornet that construct the amazingly large football-shaped paper nests that hang from the branches of trees and large shrubs, and sometimes from buildings or other structures.

Bald-faced hornets are “mild” pollinators, because they do feed on the nectar of flowers from time to time. Even so, they mostly feed on other insects. And like yellowjackets and other wasps, these species of hornets are colonial and, so, have a very distinct caste system. 

The workers, which are infertile females, perform all the labor in the complex social system such as nest building, defending the colony, and food gathering.

Queens are of course the egg-laying fertile females, while the drones are the fertile males.

Indeed, yellowjackets and hornets are beautiful insects. And while many of us don’t especially care for cleaning their bodies from our hummingbird feeders, or trying to keep them from the feeders in the first place, I am nonetheless appreciative (despite my recent encounter!) of these hard working, attractive insects. 

Yellowjackets and hornets, and others like them, are interesting and important parts of nature as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.