Last winter was mild here in western Washington, so I predicted a surge in yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets this summer. Sure enough, they are everywhere and I’m bracing for battle. Come autumn, when the wasps are looking for a treat, the honey bee colonies will be prime targets.
Like bumble bee queens, mated yellowjacket and hornet queens find a protected place to overwinter. In a normal year, many don’t make it till spring due to the cold and wet weather. But when the winters are especially mild, the number of surviving queens spikes and wasps appear everywhere.
Last week my dog was barking like an idiot and he wouldn’t come to me, so I began thrashing through the understory myself to discover the problem. I found him with his forepaws on a tree, barking into the leaves. When I looked up into the tree, I was amazed to see a huge yellowjacket nest.
The nest was light gray and egg-shaped, wider at the top, and yellowjackets were walking all over the outside surface. Unfortunately, it was right in the heart of my apiary, about equidistant from all three of my hive stands, and about thirty feet from the ground.
I wanted to get a photo but there were too many leaves for a clear shot. My husband said he would help me trim back some branches later in the week, so I collected the dog and left the ‘jackets alone.
By the time we went back to cut the branches, the nest had been attacked and about half of it was completely gone. Shreds of the gray outer covering where hanging in the lower branches and the wasps were in a frenzy.
In retrospect, I think the dog was barking at whatever was trying to get the wasps. At the time I was perplexed because I didn’t think he would bark at a wasp nest. But something else wanted that nest—a raccoon is my guess—and that was the creature my dog objected to. I hadn’t seen anything else up there, but once I saw the nest I stopped looking for other things, so I could have easily missed it.
In the following days I saw many yellowjackets collecting wood fibers. Normally, I only see them harvest fibers in the early spring, but I suspect that in an emergency—such as when someone trashes your home—it is necessary to rebuild. They love weathered unpainted wood, and I often discover them by the sound they make, a scratching or scritching noise as they scrape the wood with their mouthparts. They chew the wood into a paste-like substance which they use to build the nest covering.
I don’t know what will happen to the damaged nest but I suspect that if the queen survived, the colony will repair the nest. I can’t get close enough to the nest to be certain of the species, but I believe it belongs to the common aerial yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaria.