Originally published Aug. 2, 2017
By Ciscoe Morris, former In the Garden writer
IT’S NOT SURPRISING that many people fear wasps. It’s hard to like creatures capable of inflicting multiple stings. Especially those pesky yellow jackets that won’t leave you alone while you’re trying to eat outside.
As scary as they are, most kinds of yellow jackets and other wasps, such as bald-faced hornets, are beneficial because they eat astounding numbers of aphids, mosquitoes, caterpillars, houseflies and a host of other insect pests.
Paper wasps are the yellow jackets that make paper nests under the eaves on the house. They aren’t the guys who bother your picnic. Instead, they search out tasty caterpillars and other harmful insects to feed to their young. If the nest is out of the way where it won’t be disturbed, it’s best just to let it be.
Bald-faced hornets are the large, black wasps with white spots on their heads and rumps; they build their paper nests in trees and shrubs, such as laurel hedges and rhododendrons. Anyone who has accidentally disturbed their nests knows they are capable of inflicting painful stings if they sense their colony is threatened.
Fortunately, they seldom bother picnics and rarely sting away from the nest. Instead, they’re the eagles of the insect world, snagging all sorts of harmful insects to feed their young. For a show better than anything you’ll see on PBS’s “Nature,” watch for them hovering just above the lawn. They’re looking for crane flies hiding in the grass. If the bald-faced hornet spots one taking off, it swoops down and bites its head off in midair. All you hear is an “Eek!” and it’s back to the nest for a barbecue.
As is true of all wasps, the hornets will desert the nest as temperatures drop in winter, so if you can make sure that visitors, young children and pets won’t disturb it, there’s no real need to remove the nest.
The yellow jackets that build their nests in the ground or inside the walls of your house or garage are another story. They are beneficial in that they also feed on harmful insects, but they’re the ones that bother your picnic, and have been known to sting when people try to shoo them away.
Much worse, yellow jackets tend to enter soda cans unseen, making for an unpleasant surprise when unsuspecting picnickers take a drink!
They also can be very aggressive if you get too near their nests, especially in fall, when they are protecting the new queens. If your picnics are under constant siege, it’s likely there is a nest nearby. Look for wasps flying in a beeline in and out from a ground nest or a hole in the side of a structure. Wasps never hover or forage near their nest, although they do get backed up waiting to enter a crowded entry point.
If the problem is serious enough to require control measures, and if the nest is in an accessible location, there are companies that will remove the colony for free. This is a great solution, because the venom is used for medical research. If the nest is in the side of your house or structure, pest-control companies gladly will spray for a fee.
If you decide to do the spraying yourself, do it at night, and only if you aren’t allergic to stings. Wear heavy clothes, button the collar, and put rubber bands around pant and shirt cuffs. The last thing you want is a wasp inside your clothes. Use a spray containing CO2 that will freeze the wasps on contact in case they swarm. Use a flashlight, but put it on a chair so you can illuminate the target without carrying the light. Yellow jackets are attracted to light, so if anything goes wrong, the flashlight will serve as a beacon, telling them: “Hey, guys; here I am: Come get me!” Sort of makes hiring the job out an attractive option, doesn’t it?