Dealing With Yellowjackets: Take the Sting Out of Fall!

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Treating Yellowjacket Stings and How to Deal With Their Nests

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Seemingly out of nowhere, yellowjackets come at you and strike at blazing speed. Their venom hurts like the devil. Do yellowjackets die after they sting? How do you treat their stings? What do you do if there’s a nest in the yard or garden? Let’s take the sting out of fall by learning about yellowjackets!

In late summer and fall, untamed places abound with gorgeous displays of late goldenrod, joy-pye, and fall asters, but some less-welcome visitors are the yellowjackets and other aggressive wasps.

Identifying Yellowjackets

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees, and gentle native bees, yellowjackets are extremely aggressive insects at this time of year. 

Yellowjackets are predatory social wasps distinguished from bees by their thin “waists.” Bees have thicker waists and fuzzy bodies.

yellow jacket and bee comparision

Do Yellowjackets Die After They Sting?

A yellowjacket stings multiple times without dying and injects venom into its victim (A honeybee can only sting once). Both honeybees and bumblebees will only sting defensively, while yellow jackets are easily provoked. They attack in swarms and will give chase over long distances if they feel threatened. 

Please note: We’re not saying that wasps do not have an important part of the ecosystem! In fact, they are excellent at regulating populations of insect pests. They are parasites of caterpillars, aphids, whiteflies, and a lot of other insects that eat crops. They are also pollinators for a lot of native plants, such as goldenrod, and many fruit trees, such as figs.

However, yellowjackets tend to be quite aggressive around this time of year as natural sugar sources decline and they need to find energy. They are scavengers of meat and sweet liquids, which brings them in frequent contact with humans (whereas honeybees visit flowers for nectar and keep away from humans). Let’s briefly understand the yellow jacket’s life cycle:

The Yellowjacket’s Life Cycle

  • In spring, yellowjackets start building nests of extraordinarily sophisticated architecture—underground, suspended from tree branches, under the eaves, in shed rafters, in wall cavities, and sometimes in abandoned cars. Within the nest, the wasp queen lays eggs, which will mature into adult workers.
  • All summer, the yellowjacket workers capture and kill caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects, which, along with carrion, serve as protein foods to feed their growing broods. They sip flower nectar, rotting and damaged fruits, and tree sap to supply the energy to feed themselves.
  • In late summer, the queen begins laying the eggs that will develop into potential queens and a few males (called drones), which will mate with the queens.
  • As fall progresses and supplies of prey insects and overripe fruit decline, the wasps become increasingly aggressive in defending their expanding nests. You’ll see wasps showing up at barbecues and picnics and hovering near trash cans. They are going after both the meats (to feed their larvae) and the sweets (candy, desserts, sugary drinks) to furnish themselves with energy.
  • In late fall, the workers, the drones, and the queen will all leave the nest and die. Only the mated queens survive, burrowing into leaf litter and hibernating in suspended animation until spring. 

How to Prevent Yellowjacket Stings

From late summer on:

  • Keep garbage cans and recycling bins tightly closed and far away from children, playgrounds, and social areas.
  • Don’t wear perfume or other scented body products when you’re out and about doing yard and garden work. Wasps may mistake a floral scent for actual nectar-producing flowers. 
  • Stay aware. Watch the ground around you for wasps entering and leaving holes in the ground that lead to their underground nests. Approach outbuildings slowly and cautiously, looking up under the eaves and rafters; wasps will buzz out and around the nest hole to warn you not to approach further. Give them a wide berth, and they are unlikely to attack.
  • If you have the task of mowing tall grass or whacking weeds, wear protective clothing, including boots (long pants tucked inside), long sleeves tucked inside your gloves, and face protection (I use a bee veil). Wasps nesting underground will sense the vibrations from power equipment and may strike from some distance away.

How To Avoid Yellowjacket Stings

Resist the urge to swat, slap, and run away. The wasps may perceive rapid movement as even more threatening.

Move away slowly, covering your face with your arms, and keep moving.

If you’ve disturbed the whole colony and many wasps have come for you, run into a densely shaded spot; wasps prefer bright sunlight.

Don’t jump in a pond if one is nearby. The wasps will hover around, waiting for you to surface, then immediately attack your head.

How to Treat Yellowjacket Stings

Most people develop pain, redness, and swelling around the site of a wasp sting.

Self-care involves spreading a paste of baking soda or table salt and water over the area immediately after the sting, then later applying an ice pack to reduce the swelling.

However, some people have a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction to a yellowjacket sting or stings. Get medical attention immediately if:

  • You’ve received many stings.
  • You’ve been stung in the mouth or throat.
  • You begin wheezing or sweating profusely.
  • You have difficulty breathing or speaking.
  • If your throat or chest feels tight.
  • You break out in hives. 
  • You feel nauseous, dizzy, or severely anxious. 

Talk to your doctor about carrying emergency medication to use in case this happens again.


Eliminating Wasp Nests

Yellowjacket nests are built out of paper fibers and are most often underground, but they can also be seen under eaves. They are covered with a single opening, unlike paper wasp nests, which have exposed, honey-comb–like nests.

Because all wasps are useful to us as insect predators, experts suggest leaving their nests alone unless they pose an imminent threat to human or animal health. Mark the area, and stay away from it until the wasps all leave in late fall. They won’t return to the nest next year.

But when yellowjackets have stung or built their nest near the home or outbuildings or in the path of human activities, you may want to eliminate it.

Here’s what to do:

  • If it’s a very large nest or if you’ve ever had a severe reaction to wasp or other insect stings, hire a licensed exterminator to handle the job.
  • If you decide to do it yourself, identify that the stinging insect is indeed a yellowjacket or other aggressive wasp. Mark the location of the nest without getting too close.
  • Buy a pressurized can of wasp and hornet jet spray that sprays a solid stream of insecticide spray that will reach 10 feet or more.

Then, follow UNH Cooperative Extension entomologist Alan Eaton’s excellent instructions:

  • Treat at night when yellowjackets are least active, and most workers are in the nest. Use a flashlight with a red filter over the bulb. Wasps can’t see red light well. 
  • At least two hours after dark, quietly and carefully approach the colony and thoroughly spray into the entrance. Don’t give a quick shot; spray for several seconds to make sure the spray penetrates deep into the nest. 
  • After spraying, walk away immediately and stay away for a full day. For ground colonies, carry a shovelful of soil with you to cover the entrance before you walk away.
  • Coveralls can be helpful, especially if they are made of slick, smooth material and worn over other thick clothing. Many people choose Tyvek. 
  • If wearing a shirt and pants, securely tape or tuck them together at the waist.
  • Wear boots. Wasps may crawl over your shoes and sting your ankles.
  • Seal the pant cuffs securely over the boots with tape or rubber bands.
  • Protect hands with leather or heavy rubber gloves, securely sealing the arms to the gloves at the cuffs. 
  • A beekeeper’s hat and veil will keep wasps away from your face and neck. Make sure to fasten it to the clothing around your neck and shoulders. 

If you get stung, here is how to treat bee and wasp stings.

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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