If you live in a place where autumn hoards of yellowjackets or bald-faced hornets enjoy baskets of honey bee tenders, now is a good time to do something about it.
Colonies of social wasps do not overwinter in the northern climates. Instead, virgin queens mate in the fall and then go off by themselves to overwinter in a protected place. Come spring, the queens get busy starting new colonies in much the same way as bumble bee queens.
The foundress queen begins to build a nest, lay eggs, and provision the larvae until she has daughters old enough to do the housework. Gradually, she abandons her other chores and spends all her time laying eggs. So social wasp colonies, like bumble bee colonies, start off small in the spring and build throughout the summer and fall. The colonies continue to thrive until the first hard freeze.
If you’ve ever tried to stop a marauding bunch of yellowjackets from taking over a honey bee hive, you know how hard it can be. No matter how many you squash, they just keep coming. They will kill and eat both larvae and adults, and the freshly stored honey serves as an after-dinner mint of sorts.
You can greatly decrease the number of wasp colonies in your immediate area by killing the spring queens. They are easy to spot because they are big and because they often stop by the earliest blooms for a quick energy drink.
I often hear them before I see them because they will scratch at unpainted wooden boards or split-rail fences. They chew these fibers into a pulp and use them to start their paper mache-like nests. Sometimes several at once will be scritching and pulling at the splinters, making the oddest sound. If you find them so employed, it is easy to scoop them up with a butterfly net.
You can also use pheromone lures that are designed to attract a number of different wasp species, or you can use homemade traps made with a plastic water bottle and a piece of meat. I hear they love smoked turkey, but I have no personal experience. Just remember, don’t use anything sweet because bees will be attracted to sweets as well as wasps.
In the years I aggressively pursued wasp queens in early spring, I greatly decreased the autumn wasp problem. In some years I virtually eliminated it. But once the nests are established, they are hard to find and difficult to kill. So now is the time—I found my first one of the season today.