Yellowjackets and honey-robbing bees go hand-in-hand

Late summer is the season when yellowjackets can be a problem for beekeepers. This is the same season that honey-robbing honey bees appear, and the miscreants can work together to produce a synergistic mess.

Yellowjackets are eusocial predatory wasps. An overwintered yellowjacket queen begins a new colony in the spring by laying a few eggs in a small nest, usually underground. Her progeny enlarges the nest, providing the queen more room to lay eggs. The daughter wasps care for the young, clean the nest, hunt, feed the young, and defend the colony. Both the nest and the colony continue to increase in size during the spring and summer months.

But just when the wasp colony is at its largest, the summer food supply begins to ebb. Less rainfall and higher temperatures mean foliage starts to dry and the insects that fed on the foliage are gone. You first notice the yellowjackets when they want to share your hamburger or sip your beer. They’ll go for soda pop, roast pig, or even corn-on-the-cob. These insects, previously in the background, suddenly come out of the woodwork. They are everywhere and they are mean.

Then, as the shorter and cooler days of autumn approach, even the alternative food sources dry up. But, although the picnic basket has disappeared, there is still fresh meat to be had . . . honey bees.

A well-populated colony of honey bees can successfully defend itself against a yellowjacket attack, but a small or weak colony can easily be overpowered by these aggressive and powerful wasps. Once in the door they will kill the bees. They will eat larvae, eggs, pupae, honey—whatever they can find. And they won’t give up until the hive is empty.

Several years ago a friend called to say that she saw some yellowjackets around one of my hives. I went over and watched in morbid fascination as three out of every four insects that went in or out of the hive was a yellowjacket. By the time I opened it, nothing was left. Even the comb was torn apart.

If a hive is weak, especially during a nectar dearth, other honey bees will often rob it of its honey stores. The fighting that ensues results in dead bees and open cells of honey—both of which can be detected by scavenging yellowjackets. If robbing gets well underway, yellowjackets are sure to follow.

So how do you prevent the carnage? In my experience, the best way to prevent an attack is to prevent robbing. As soon as nectar becomes scarce, close down the entrance to a size the colony can defend. A large and boisterous colony doesn’t need any restriction, but a small or weak colony may need its entrance reduced to one bee length. Make sure there are no alternate entrances where robbers or wasps can enter.

Also helpful are the plastic traps that contain a pheromone lure for yellowjackets. Hung in a tree or other structure, they attract the yellowjackets through a one-way entrance. Once inside, the wasps can’t find their way out. If you use these, hang them on the perimeter of the apiary but not too near the hives. The idea is to attract the wasps away from the hive, not toward it.

My other favorite yellowjacket control is to sweep them up in a butterfly net in the early spring. The very first ones you see may be queens. If you can get these, you can save yourself a lot of trouble later.

Rusty

Yellowjacket eating a honey bee
Yellowjacket eating a honey bee

Comments

Ludy
Reply

Thanks for the replies. I will look into both suggestions.

Kathy
Reply

I had a hive that seemed weak with quite a few dead bees at the entrance a week ago so i have been keeping an eye on. I have had an entrance reducer on for quite a while. But now I just checked it and the hive is dead. I think my bees were killed by wasps as there are a few wasps flying out of the hive when i opened it up. There is lots of capped and uncapped honey stores,and larva in various stages in the supers. What do I do with them? I just have 2 hives and the other seems ok so far. Although I did see a few wasps around it today. I klled some but there are still some around and I even saw one or two coming out of hte hive. It has a reducer on. I thought it would be too cold for those nasty things but I’ll get a wasp catcher up and see if I can get the last of them before there ruin my other hive. I would be happy for any other suggestions and advice what to do with the honey/larva frames from my dead hive. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Kathy,

Put the extra honey, capped and uncapped, on your good hive. There’s nothing you can do with the larvae, because it hasn’t been kept warm. You can leave it out and hope the wasps stay busy with it instead of your other hive. But if you do that, put it a distance away from the other hive, or else just store it somewhere inside a garage or shed. Yellowjackets coming out of your good hive is not a good sign. When you put the honey on them, check for a queen if you can. Sometimes the wasps kill the queen.

Next year put out pheromone lures early in the year to catch the spring queens and buy robbing screens for the fall. Up here in Washington, I now reduce entrances as early as August and I put robbing screens on all but the largest hives. It doesn’t take the wasps long to completely decimate a hive.

Theresa
Reply

I read your article and this appears to be what just happened with us-what did you do afterwards? We have 5 supers of honey and no bees-about 100 dead ones after realizing that yellow jackets were around it..not sure how long this went on and closed down entrance but too late. Just 5 days ago bees seemed to be defending their hive. Did you bring in a new queen and package? This is fall-November and we are in NC. No yellow jackets within the hive now. Pretty sad actually-we had a good group of gentle bees. Do we harvest honey now (which we had not planned to do till spring as it was a new hive started this past Feb) and wait to replace the bees this spring? This has been an eye opened-thanks for all the comments and help

Rusty
Reply

Theresa,

I answered your e-mail before I saw this so, like I said, you can add a new package and queen in the spring. If you are going to extract the honey, do so now, but save a few frames so you can get your next colony off to a quick start. Also, since you have lots of yellowjackets, I would buy a robbing screen for next fall. You can get one at Brushy Mountain. Also, in the spring, put up yellowjacket pheromone lures. If you can get the queens in early spring, it will save you a lot of trouble in the fall.

Kev
Reply

First year in Nashville — 3 acres outside of the city, and YJs are everywhere. As soon as it got cold, I spent an hour knocking little nests out of the garage and shed ceiling. I couldn’t mow past a specific part of the yard after being attacked twice.

I’d like to start a hive or two, but I don’t know the ups and downs of it. Would this HELP the YJ problem? Or would I find myself at a disadvantage from the start (and potentially fail)?

Rusty
Reply

Kev,

Yellowjackets are a perpetual problem for beekeepers, but I wouldn’t let them discourage me from having some hives. The thing is, you have to be proactive with them. In my opinion, beekeepers should think of them in advance instead of waiting for the wasps to clean out the hives. Proactive management means putting out pheromone lures in early spring. If you catch the queens early, life will be easier. Next, be ready to lock down your hive with entrance reducers as soon as the summer nectar dearth begins. You will know it has begun when the wasps, lacking food from flowers, start attacking your hives. By locking down, I mean use entrance reducers, robbing screens, close upper entrances, and be careful not to spill honey or syrup in the vicinity of the hives. If you do those things, your honey bees will be fine.

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