Sometimes it seems as if the crazed yellow-and-black troublemakers are everywhere in these waning days of summer -- terrorizing you in the car as they buzz across the dashboard, staking out a claim on your soft drink or circling the picnic basket like planes over National.
It's enough to give bees a bad reputation, and an undeserved one at that, since the mad bombers are not actually bees but yellow jackets out packing in all the carbohydrates they can before the first or second frost packs them in for good.
Although nobody is sure what triggers all the scrambling by "the most aggressive of the stinging insects," yellow jackets become troublesome in late August and remain that way through the next few weeks, according to Melanie Odlum, apiculturist for the cooperative extension service at the University of Maryland.
Earlier in the summer, yellow jackets, which are in the same family as hornets or wasps, are rarely bothersome because they are out catching insects and bringing them back to their nesting young or feeding on pollen and nectar, says Odlum. (That dual role of bug-killer and pollinator, by the way, is why we're supposed to be glad to have them around.)
But now, the young are largely grown, most flowers are going or gone and the weather has been very dry, she adds, so the adults, who "will eat anything," are out "everywhere looking for sweets" and other carbohydrates.
Combine that with the fact that their population is peaking -- a single, well-situated colony ruled by a successful queen can have as many as 20,000 yellow jackets -- and you have the recipe for a lot of unwelcomed guests around your root beer.
All members of a yellow jacket colony except the new queens reared this year will die after the first or second frost, according to Odlum. But until then they're going to be out in at least squadron force.
Odlum says yellow jackets won't attack unless attacked, and advises against swatting. Pain and swelling, she adds, are normal reactions to a sting and not signs of allergic problems. If someone has trouble breathing after being stung, that reflects an allergic reaction that should be treated medically.
Odlum provides one last note in the no-solace department -- a sting hurts you worse than it hurts them. Unlike the honeybee, which dies after stinging because its barbed stinger cannot be withdrawn from the victim without ripping out part of the insect, the yellow jacket has a smooth, withdrawable stinger and can sting again and again.