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

Phillip
Reply

I notice wasps in the spring are big and fat. Are those the queens? I squished a few of them hanging around an outdoor feeder I had set up earlier in the summer.

I didn’t know the wasps traps were safe for honey bees. I figured they’d trap the bees as well as the wasps.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

Queens are the only wasps that overwinter in cold climates. So, yes, those fat early ones are most likely queens. They need to do everything by themselves in the early spring until the first batch of brood is raised, so that is why you see them out and about.

Wasp traps that use a pheromone lure will not attract honey bees. I usually have several of them hanging in the bee yard and I have never caught a honey bee.

Doug
Reply

A great article Rusty. I didn’t know much about them at all. Thank you. I just squish them when I get a chance. The thing is, I bought a butterfly net to catch and kill those white butterflies that lay their eggs on my cabbages, then hatch and eat holes thru everything!

I’ll be out there next spring scooping up the wasp queens! I’ve been practicing on wasps when things get slow, so I’m getting pretty good at snatching them out of the air, if I do say so myself. :)

Rusty
Reply

Doug,

Sounds like the Cabbage White butterfly. And you are right, the larval stage eats holes through everything.

You are also right about the butterfly net–it takes some practice, but you can get good at it. I’ve gotten a lot of practice on yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets. Then I squish them.

adam
Reply

Cabbage white butterfly can be controlled with cooking flour; my mom has been doing it for years. They eat it and can’t defecate any more larvae.

Phillip
Reply

I noticed more wasps around our hives for the past week. I’m sure they can smell the honey. It’s made the bees more defensive. I got stung on the back of the neck today just standing around minding my own business. I need a bigger back yard. I’m learning all the pros and cons of urban beekeeping these days.

Rusty
Reply

I’ve seen a large increase in the number of yellowjackets in the last two weeks. Before that I had mostly hornets but yellowjackets have taken over. I was fixing a fence this weekend and got stung by a defensive honey bee–and I have a big yard.

Phillip
Reply

It’s the occasional defensive behaviour of honey bees that makes me question the wisdom of urban beekeeping.

Rusty
Reply

I agree with you, but it’s a very unpopular position to take. I’m afraid some folks will find out the hard way.

Dawn
Reply

Is there anything you can do to stop the yellow jackets once you see them going into the honey bee hive or is it a lost cause??

I have reduced the entrance and closed off all other openings. We have killed the one big yellow jacket nest that we know of and I keep killing any yellow jackets I can smoosh around the hive. My hive is queenless right now–could the yellow jackets have killed her? I noticed about a month ago a large pile of dead bees outside the hive and yellow jackets around then.

I just took the last honey super off early this week and there were a lot of bees but no eggs or queen so I would say they are weakened at this point. There were a few of those nasty yellowjackets on the combs too.
I really don’t want to lose them.

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Dawn,

It sounds pretty bad. I have seen exactly what you are talking about. Once the bees more or less give up, the yellowjackets go in and take over the hive. They will attack and kill bees. They will also eat honey, brood, and eggs.

It is very possible they killed the queen. I don’t think they will go after a queen specifically, but she is an easy mark. The dead bees may have been evicted drones or they may have accumulated from a robbing attempt–it’s hard to tell. But the smell of the dead bees and/or the smell of honey probably attracted the yellowjackets to the hive.

Are you sure you are queenless? Often there is not much brood this time of year so it can be hard to tell if a queen is present or not. But if you are queenless you will have to get a mated queen quickly in order to overwinter. Your colony will not be able to raise a queen if there are no eggs and, in any case, the drones are mostly gone by now so a virgin queen would be unable to mate.

I think the best you can do is get a queen and keep the hive reduced to a very small entrance. Make sure they have pollen. If you do get a new queen the colony will need both pollen and honey in order to raise brood. Do you have more than one hive? If so, you might be better off by combining this hive with another.

Dawn
Reply

Well . . . this is my only hive but–we spent a lot of time killing yellow jackets today and I did reduce the entrance and added a 1/2 gal boardman feeder with Honey-B-Healthy in the syrup. When I checked again several hours later, there was only one yj to kill (which we did) and the honey bees had cleaned out the feeder!! I had more syrup and pulled the feeder out to refill and there were honey bees all over it!
They were also back to the feisty little creatures that I usually have. They are lined up in the very small (about 1″) entrance they have and seem to be guarding it!

I am so excited!! I watched for awhile and saw no more yj. We really worked hard to kill all of them.

There were 2 capped queen cells a couple of days ago. I know she will be practically a virgin queen but I figure to replace her next season. There is a wild hive close by so I am hoping she will be able to at least mate a few times. There was some capped brood present and larvae but I did not see any eggs. I also had the hive vented, because it has been so hot here in Ohio but I closed all that up also. I intend to continue to feed them as they do not have nearly enough honey for winter yet. I have a great supplier close by and can get pollen patties and about anything else I need. I really enjoy my bees and want to be a good manager for them.

I just am amazed at the difference in the general attitude of the girls by this evening! They really did seem like they had given up earlier but not now. I can’t wait to see what the morning reveals! Should be warmer and sunny here. We will be on yj patrol too.

BTW-I really like your site and really appreciate your answer.

Rusty
Reply

Good work, Dawn. It sounds like your bees had a reprieve.

Are there any drones in your hive? That may give you an idea of whether or not the wild colony has any drones. Just be sure you have a fertile, egg-laying queen before winter sets in.

Dawn
Reply

Just a small note . . . they are still feisty this morning and I even watched them fight off a yellow jacket that tried to get in the little entrance. They are literally sucking up syrup and seem to be out foraging in the asters which are just starting to bloom. (still lots of goldenrod)

Just makes my day to see them carrying on like normal!!!

I am learning to let the bees tell/show me what they need and do my best to provide the resource or make the situation manageable for them.

Amazing little creatures!!

Millie Johnson
Reply

Jan 20th in Alabama; this morning around 50 degrees when I rode up to check the bees! It was total pandemonium up there. Poor hives are just beginning nucs from late summer so I feed them still. Yellowjackets everywhere. I closed off the entrances and killed as many as I could. Went back and put the reducers in and little ladies were dragging the yj out tearing their wings off!! Yahhhh victory!

Rusty
Reply

Wow, that is scary. Up here in the cold and frozen north, yellowjackets don’t overwinter because they freeze to death. I would hate to have to deal with them in January.

Peter
Reply

I have befriended yellowjackets for more than 10 years since I was recuperating from a broken arm. In my ignorance I have never realized that my docile bee . . . or so I thought was a bee, is the enemy. I taught my daughter at a very young age to put strawberry syrup on her hand and 40-50 of them would eat it off very quickly.

The bees seem to know me and land on me in the neighborhood whilst talking with neighbors. When I am indoors, they come in and buzz me till I go put another piece of fruit or more honey or syrup, but they never ever get aggressive. I have rescued the occasional drowning victim who will get into the stream of honey from the jar and get covered in honey until I put my finger in and push it to the side of the dish. So I wonder if a more friendly way of keeping them off of our life giving friends the honey bes, would be to put some syrup out on a dish till they come, then put fruit slices if you prefer the cheaper solution. Maybe they won’t go for your hives. I live in the San Francisco area; in case my species are different than those cited as aggressive. Mine are very friendly and helped me to teach my wife and kids not to fear based on ignorance.

BTW I allowed them to build their nest the first year right next to my dining room window and when I went out to smoke right next to their hive they never did more than check me out. Even without a cigarette I would put my face right up to the hive… no problem. People would slam the sliding door right next to them and no aggression to the vibration or noise.

Just trying to be helpful and be real. I am looking to be a keeper now based on this experience and have only now begun researching. Cheers

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

Adult wasps eat sweet things to give them energy, and you can attract them by providing syrup and/or fruit. But that will not keep them away from honey bee hives because the wasps need meat to feed to their young. They like bee hives because adult bees and bee larvae provide the nutritional requirements that wasp larvae need to grow.

Brandy
Reply

We have been fighting off yellowjackets for a few weeks now, and this morning I found they have wiped out my bee colony. I had to shut up the hive and run because there were so many yellowjackets in it. Sad, as this was my fist hive which was only about 15 months old. What do I do with my hive now to prep it for a new nuc next year? And how do I even do anything with all the jackets? I do have a trap in the yard now, but we cannot get to the nest because it is under the shed an pretty accessible.

Rusty
Reply

Brandy,

You don’t say where you are, but if you are in a place that freezes in the winter, all the yellowjackets will die with the first freeze. That includes the ones in the hive and in the nest. As for your equipment, freezing also will kill wax moth infestations as well as small hive beetles. If it doesn’t freeze naturally, you can put used combs in the freezer overnight to kill those things and the inside of the boxes can be heated with a blow torch for the same reason. Then, in the spring, you can just put your new nuc or package in the old equipment. Avoid yellowjacket problems by reducing your entrances at the beginning of any summer or fall nectar dearth.

Brandy
Reply

Thank you very much, Rusty. I live in Northern Colorado; I am not sure if yellowjackets can winter over here or not. Do you know?

Rusty
Reply

Brandy,

I would say they cannot overwinter there. It would take a warm, southern climate for them to overwinter—something like Georgia or South Carolina.

Brandy
Reply

That is great news! I am from Alabama, and we have never had the kind of yellowjacket problem in Colorado that I saw in Bama until this year, so it struck a chord of familiar dread in me to have my yard overrun by them. I guess we will just start a new nuc next year and be more vigilant if we see signs of jackets again in 2014. The entrance reducer would have been helpful a week ago, I bet :(

Thierry
Reply

Arrived in south of France, ten years ago. The Asian hornet is invading Europe. (Next year in UK) No enemies, and bees are dying, and no honey. We try to catch it with traps (wine, syrup, beer) but it’s a poor solution. I see you have the same problems with the yellowjacket, unknown here. What about synthetic pheromone traps?

Rusty
Reply

Yes, we use pheromone traps here for many kinds of wasp.

Ludy
Reply

I am in desperate need of a queen honey bee for one of my hives. Is there anyone who can deliver them at this time of the year. I live in south Texas. I am scared cause we have many yellow jackets.

Rusty
Reply

Ludy,

You should be able to get one locally. I hear you can get queens through the end of October down there. Anyone know where she can find one?

Thierry
Reply

Why don’t you try to make your queen yourself if you have a another good hive. Look if you have very news eggs (1 or 2 days) and follow the good way to get it. About hornets, chicken eat its, but not bees.

Thierry
Reply

Yes, we use pheromone traps here for many kinds of wasp. Could you give me more information about pheromone trap? You don’t really use it here, but I could buy in USA, if I know dealers. Merci beaucoup.

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.

Clay-in-SLC
Reply

Some people have mentioned killing (squashing) yellowjackets around their hive entrances.

I read that you should NOT do this near the hives, because when a yellowjacket is smashed or killed it releases an attack pheromone that signals to other yellowjackets to come to their defense. The last place you would want more yellowjackets coming to is your apiary.

I do not know if this is true or not. But I’m not willing to risk it.

I have been trying to figure out how to get yellowjackets away from my apiary or killed altogether. I have been hanging non-pesticide traps around the apiary, but I see after reading this great blog post that I may actually be making the problem worse as the attractant pheromone in the traps attracts even more yellowjackets.

I’m going to move the traps further away, and then also purchase several more and put them in my neighbors’ yards. The yellowjackets I am seeing hover at the ground, tear bees in half, enter the hives and come back out dragging pupa, other bees, etc. They’re HORRIBLE.

Rusty
Reply

Clay,

You bring up a good point. I don’t know much about yellowjacket pheromones, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to learn that squashing one emits a distress signal. Sometimes after I catch them in my butterfly net, I squash them and leave them in the driveway. Usually within about a half hour, another yellowjacket or bald-faced hornet comes along and carries them off, probably for food. So there’s that aspect as well: if it smells like fresh meat other wasps will come.

Thierry
Reply

Have a look about APISHIELD, a new trap, very clever.
In France, we have a problem with the asian hornet, and it is a good solution.

Rusty
Reply

Thierry,

Never heard of it but I will certainly have a look. Thanks.

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