The call for help was posted on the Clifton community Facebook page Oct. 29. A 1-year-old boy was stung multiple times in his front yard by yellow jackets, and his father wanted the nearby nest exterminated.
Mark Khosravi, an Advanced Placement environmental science teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va., answered the call. He frequently helps Clifton-area residents relocate snakes and exterminate wasp nests near their homes.
Khosravi doesn’t use chemicals to exterminate nests. Instead, he dumps ice down the entrance hole of a ground nest and then covers the hole with a net to prevent the yellow jackets from exiting. They slowly freeze to death.
The yellow jackets that stung the boy were successfully exterminated, and Khosravi dug the nest out of the ground several days later. He took a photo of the dead queen and a few of her workers, shown below.
Yellow jackets are a type of wasp with yellow and black markings. Most yellow jackets build their nests underground but a few species build them in trees or buildings. They are scavengers and hunters that target protein for food and are beneficial for eating insects, both dead and alive.
But why do yellow jackets become a problem in the fall? I contacted Scott Famous, beekeeper, executive board member of the Montgomery County Beekeepers’ Association of Pennsylvania and a queen breeder, to learn more about the troublesome wasp and its aggressive behavior in the fall. Famous explained how changes in weather set these wasps off:
Yellow jackets are hand-to-mouth feeders for existence, particularly in the fall after the queen stops laying eggs and there’s no young to feed. When the weather turns colder, food sources disappear and they begin to starve. Starvation makes them angry and aggressive as they work hard to seek food.
Yellow jacket colonies grow largest in late summer and early fall just when their food sources begin to diminish, providing plenty of frustrated, hungry wasps. In the spring, there are fewer yellow jackets and they’re well-fed.
Also, yellow jackets can stay active in temperatures that are colder than what many other bees and insects can tolerate, which is why we often see them late into fall.
Ultimately, all of the yellow jackets die at the end of fall except for a new queen, which remains underground during winter, to start a new colony in the spring. Then the process begins over again.
Hungry yellow jackets often target honeybee hives for food, eating the bees and their larvae, then finishing the meal with some sweet honey for dessert. Honeybees tend to be more sluggish in cool weather compared to yellow jackets, so attacks in the fall are more successful than those in the summer.
Unfortunately, yellow jackets have been known to massacre entire beehives. Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported a sad account from 2018 in which the wasps destroyed a third of a commercial beekeeper’s hives.
In a warming climate, yellow jackets will survive longer in greater numbers and may cause more damage to honeybee hives. Conversely, very cold winters have been found to kill the wintering yellow jacket queens, preventing new colonies.
Yellow jackets can sting multiple times, unlike most bees, which sting only once. Bees have a barb on their stingers that becomes stuck in a victim’s flesh, producing a single sting, while yellow jackets have stingers without barbs that can puncture flesh multiple times while injecting venom.
The yellow jacket’s food supply may increase in the near future, which has the potential to increase their populations. The culprit is the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species native to China, Bangladesh and Vietnam, which has been spreading through the Mid-Atlantic states and is now in Virginia and Maryland.
The lanternfly excretes a sugary substance called honeydew after feeding on tree sap that is consumed by both bees and wasps. The abundant supply of lanternflies and honeydew feeds yellow jackets. As with all invasive species, including stink bugs and snakeheads, only time will tell if the lanternfly becomes truly disruptive on a large scale.
On a side note, after honeybees ingest honeydew from the lanternfly, they produce honey with a smoky bacon flavor, which is very undesirable for human consumption.
Yellow Jackets as a team name
Many teams and schools have chosen Yellow Jackets as a name because of the wasp’s aggressive nature and powerful sting. Georgia Tech is probably the most recognized school for calling its teams the Yellow Jackets. But did you know a National Football League team was called the Yellow Jackets, later becoming the Philadelphia Eagles?
From 1924 to 1931, the Frankford Yellow Jackets played in the NFL. Frankford is in northeast Philadelphia, and the Yellow Jackets won the NFL championship in 1926. But financial pressures during the Great Depression combined with stadium fires ended the team in 1931. The NFL sold the franchise rights to Lud Wray and Bert Bell, who formed the Philadelphia Eagles in 1933.
Yellow jackets and honey bees feast together. Usually they’re mortal enemies, but they observe a truce in the interest of getting one last, easy meal during the fall. For the moment, there is plenty of food for all. This scene was recorded Nov. 4. (Scott Famous)
Yellow jacket stories
Many of us have received painful stings from yellow jackets and have stories to tell, so I decided to poll my friends for some of their more interesting and horrific ones. Here are a few:
- I was running with my running group through the woods near Fairfax, Va., and some of the faster runners must have unsettled a yellow jacket nest. When I came through they just attacked me. They stick to you and don’t let go! Welts galore! I stopped counting at 27 stings and ended up in ER that night. Not fun. (Rhonda Richardson)
- Five years ago, I was visiting my mother, who lives in North Myrtle Beach. We were sitting outside on her deck enjoying a glass of wine when I was stung by a yellow jacket for no reason. Within minutes, I was being rushed to the hospital as I had an allergic reaction and my family couldn’t keep me awake. Very scary! (Angela Brown)
- I used to enjoy mowing my small lawn. But that changed one toasty summer day as I was mowing and was literally attacked from all directions by an army of yellow jackets. I’m screaming and my arms going in all directions. I’m running into the house as they followed me. They liked me! I’ve had a few good lawn services since that day and my mower is collecting dust. (Jean Fera)
- Several years ago, I decided to start using Styrofoam packing peanuts in the bottom of large planting pots to make them lighter to move. Unfortunately, I discovered that I had designed the perfect yellow jacket nesting site; they used the drainage holes as doorways. One day, I moved a pot and was swarmed by yellow jackets. I was stung on my foot and leg, and it took weeks for the pain to subside. I don’t use packing peanuts anymore and now use cloth at the bottom of all my pots to cover the drainage holes. (Donna Parker)
- Long ago, my husband and I moved into an old farmhouse in the country. Soon after we moved, I noticed yellow jackets were buzzing around in the bathroom so I quickly closed the door. Then, yellow jackets began emerging through a small hole in the ceiling above me. The room quickly filled with flying yellow jackets. Lots of them! The room didn’t have a door so I used a sheet and staple gun to close off the room. An exterminator was called and he claimed he killed over 10,000 jackets that were in a large nest above the ceiling. We didn’t live in that old farmhouse too much longer. (Belinda Baker)
- I can’t give you too much detail, but years ago a Boy Scout from Troop 1347 in Burke learned not to pee on a yellow jacket nest. As you might have guessed, he was stung. (Harry Foxwell)
- Metal detectorists and relic hunters occasionally dig up yellow jacket nests by accident. There’s a lot of metal in the ground and yellow jackets often build nests next to, or directly over, buried metal. Many of my digging friends provided yellow jacket stories, so I’ll sum up the common story line:
If you have any interesting or scary yellow jacket or wasp stories, let us know.
Attacked by yellow jackets while searching for copperhead snakes. Warning: strong language. (Mark Khosravi)