Despite many years as a Master Gardener, I now realize that simply identifying these pests is not enough. Personal experience about this large, highly variable family is essential. Yellow jackets belong to the Vespidae family, which includes the honeybees, bumblebees, Africanized bees, European paper wasps (only true hornet in the U.S.), as well as two non-stinging members: Non-stinging hoverfly and clearwing hummingbird moth. In Georgia, there are several types of yellow jackets: bald faced hornets, European hornets, Southern yellow jackets, Eastern yellow jackets, black yellow jackets, and hybrid yellow jackets. This is a large family.
The size and variability of this family require general knowledge about the most common members and their names. Accurate identification is complex and can be confusing. In addition, some of the members can be considered as beneficial, whereas others are thought of as predatory. Many in North America consider “Yellow jackets” as the common name for predatory wasps.
Some basic general characteristics include yellow/white stripes alternating with black. Wings are as long as the body and fold laterally when at rest. The yellow jackets are small, with a thin waist. They can be mistaken for bees with some essential differences: bees have a stout body but yellow jackets have less hair and expanded hind legs.
With all this confusion, it is very important to protect yourselves while strolling through the garden. It is beneficial to know a little about the life cycle of this insect pest. During the winter months, the fertilized queen hibernates in covered natural spaces such as tree stumps, rocks, and logs. As spring approaches, the queen emerges and starts a new nest, using chewed plant fibers. The first offspring are sterile females who act as workers and continue to build the nest. These nests may be in lawns, hedges, high in tree canopies, and occasionally between walls of a house, or in cavities of cinderblock walls.
Throughout summer and fall, the queen remains in the nest and continues to lay eggs. In late summer, males mate with the females, who become next year’s queens. As cold weather approaches, everyone (including the queen) abandons the nest. The males and sterile females will die. It is important to note that the ground nest may be most dangerous and most difficult to avoid. These are not visible under porches, steps (my experience), sidewalk cracks, in and around railroad ties, or at the base of a tree (my experience). Yellow jacket colonies are huge. There may be more than 1,000 workers (all sterile females) in the nest with 500 to 15,000 cells. In southern regions, mega colonies in the millions will require professional help.
During the summer and fall, people become aware of the Yellow jackets around them. They join our picnics; enjoy sweet nectar, drinks, fruit, tree sap, garbage, fish, and meats. Yellow jackets also eat caterpillars, grubs, and other insects, usually considered food for beneficial bugs. Humans consider Yellow jackets as “bad bugs” because of the painful stings, but in the plant world, they join the list of important pollinators, such as: bee flies, flies, ants, bees, wasps, butterflies, and moths.
Preventive action is essential at all times. Be aware of areas where many Yellow jackets are flying in a large group. Observe their behavior: are they disappearing into a hole in the ground? … or into a shrub? … or under a porch? It is best to ignore them and not make threatening gestures. These female insect pests are extremely fast flyers and even faster stingers if they believe their nest is in danger. Stings are very painful and result in swelling. One yellow jacket can deliver multiple stings in rapid succession; and most Yellow jackets will defend the nest together. People with sting allergies should avoid them altogether. It is possible to control Yellow jackets yourself. Wear protective clothing; wait for dark when all have returned to the nest; stay calm; spray directly into the nest and cover the opening. Call your local Extension office for help with the best pesticide or a professional, if nervous.
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the UGA extension website, www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee ; or contact the Cherokee County Extension Office, 1130 Bluffs Parkway, Suite G49, Canton, GA, 30114, 770-721-7803. The Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the UGA extension. Follow Cherokee County Master Gardeners on facebook at www.facebook.com/cherokeemastergardeners for gardening tips as well as upcoming seminars.