If you thought swarm traps were for honey bees

The striped pattern results from different types of wood fibers the wasps used for construction.

Think again. The elegant and complex nests shown below were built this summer in two of my three swarm traps. I’ve been using the same three flowerpot-shaped traps for perhaps ten years, hanging them each year from the same three trees. In early spring, we go trudging up the hill with a ladder and the traps, each outfitted with a fresh swarm lure. Some years I catch multiple swarms, sometimes nothing, but I’ve never before caught yellowjackets.

Hijacking a swarm trap

I was surprised when I found the first nest but floored to find the second. What changed, I wondered. We always have yellowjackets here, as well as bald-faced hornets, but I usually find their nests swinging from the branches of a tree.

My honey bees were not bothered by yellowjackets this year, although the bald-faced hornets were a nuisance. Unfortunately, I only discovered the bald-faced hornet nest late in the year, right above my head, hidden in the leaves of a pear tree.

Aerial yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets

Just to clarify, this type of wasp is known as an aerial yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaria. They go by several other common names including yellow hornet and sandhills hornet, and are in the same genus as the bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata. Unlike these tree-dwellers, most yellowjackets are in the genus Vespula and build their nests in the ground.

In previous years I often saw yellowjackets pestering my bees and trying to get inside the hive. But this year I added robbing screens early and, in spite of all the ‘jackets in the apiary, I had no trouble with them. The most irritating thing was their constant scritching on my wooden tomato ladders and fence posts. When I worked in the garden, I could hear them scraping the fibers from the boards, and if I looked carefully, I could see where they had gnawed into new wood. I’m surprised there was enough left to support the vines.

Saliva and wood fibers

The wasps mix the wood fibers with saliva to build their nests. The nest coverings are marbled with various colors of wood which intermingle in artistic swirls. Although they look firm in the photo, the layers are so soft and flexible they are hard to handle.

Once the wasps were gone for the season, we brought the traps down to the house. With a large knife, I cut a nest from the inside wall of the trap. At the far end is the entrance hole where the wasps come and go. These wasps would have exited into the dark interior of the swarm trap and then proceeded through the swarm trap entrance. Double doors! The swarm traps provided security against wind, rain, predators, thrashing limbs, and birds.

Even though I discovered these nests early and wrote about them back in June, I let them stay because I thought they’d be fun to dissect. They certainly lived up to that promise. I found only one wasp inside, a queen, and I believed she was dead. I photographed her before lunch, but when I came back a half-hour later, she was gone. Not quite as dead as I thought.

Hexagonal cells made of fiber

After I photographed the outside, I slit the multilayered covering. This particular nest has eight combs, including two very small ones at the ends. Each comb is circular and hangs parallel to its neighbors. The cells are roughly hexagonal and seem to made of the same material as the outer covering, except denser and more rigid. The entire structure, combs and covering together, is light as a feather and would easily blow away. It’s amazing these structures last through an entire summer.

In case you forgot how closely related the honey bee is to the social wasp, these photos will remind you. The resemblance is uncanny, and it makes me think that when a yellowjacket invades a honey bee hive, she already knows her way around.

Honey Bee Suite

Two swarm traps containing wasp nests.

These two traps have caught many honey bee swarms, but never before did they catch yellowjackets. © Rusty Burlew.

Aerial yellowjacket in nest.

This yellowjacket was huge compared to others I’ve seen, so I’m assuming she’s a queen. I thought she was dead, but she revived in the sun. © Rusty Burlew.

The nest covering in many colors.

The color and texture of the nest covering changes with the source of the wood fibers. © Rusty Burlew.

The opening of the wasp nest is near the bottom.

The opening of the wasp nest is near the bottom. © Rusty Burlew.

Inside the cover where eight combs.

The opened cover revealed eight combs. Here you can see six. The two on the ends were tiny. © Rusty Burlew.

The combs were all parallel to each other.

The combs were all nicely parallel. © Rusty Burlew.

The cells are arranged in a honeycomb pattern.

Each cell is roughly hexagonal, making a honeycomb pattern. © Rusty Burlew.


  • That wasp has been robbing out my NUC for the past week, also its little cousin. I have their entrance reduced down to one opening 3/8 inch high by 1/2 inch wide. The wasps walk in and out like they own the place with very little resistance. I try to kill as many as I can when I see them. I was going to put on my mouse guards last week but that would leave multiple 3/8 holes to guard so I’m waiting until the temps drop into the 30’s to do so. This way they won’t be flying anymore and with any luck the cold will kill most of them. I tried to locate the nest but they fly too fast. I do know the general direction they reside in though. Unfortunately my nasty neighbor owns that piece of land so I can’t go walk around on it to locate them. I put traps out through the summer and they seemed to work okay then but not this late in the season. I wouldn’t care if they just took the dead bees from the ground but they seem to want live prey. Any suggestions?

      • Thanks Rusty,

        I will pick up or make a few robbing screens for next season. Cold weather is setting in for the season here in NEPA so I should be good once we get our first hard freeze. I checked the NUC and it don’t seem to be any worse for wear right now. For as much as I hate cold weather, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, I hope we get a hard freeze soon. Ouch, it hurt to say that.

  • Rusty,

    I’m have no expertise in wasp or bees. Is that a yellow jacket Q (1/2 “) or vespa crabro ?

    We have both here, most yellow jacket nest are in ground or in walls occasionally and they have gray paper outer cover. And in walls the YJ seems to build long nest (2′) instead of ball shape , like the EHornet.

    When i till garden in spring the big Q’s emerge (EH) from soft dirt 2” long and are takin care of. I know our climates are different.

    But then again I’ve never seen a YJs Q

  • I have been learning so much from this site, thanks! After reading about the robbing screens I’ve placed them on our two hives. I believe it’s made a world of difference, we have A LOT of yellowjackets flying around/below the entrance, and they seem to fly up grab a honey bee, and pull it down to the ground where a gang of yellowjackets… well do what they do. It’s pure carnage! I swear I saw one walk into the robbing screen yesterday and waited around to see if it would come out, but never did, so I’m hoping the honey bees balled it.

    Question, when do you think is the time to remove the screens, I’ve been waiting to fully winterize, but with the warmer weather this week still have 2 drone supers and one had one medium full honey, and the other has two, I had left some frames in there as they seemed very busy, and interestingly enough the bees built comb in the empty space, so I’m contemplating when to remove the extra. This is my first year and I’d like to prepare them well for the winter. Biggest concern is rain/wind, as they face WSW with a lot of open air.

  • German yellow jacket , don’t think I’ve seen them before, maybe over the years we’ve had different names growing up as kids.

  • Hey Rusty. I learned recently that apparently when the wasp has yellow dots between the black lines (that don’t blend into the lines) that it’s a queen. The workers have dots that blend into the lines. 🙂

    • Philippa,

      They don’t make honey, and since the colony doesn’t overwinter, they don’t seem to store any kind of food. They feed the young chewed up insects (including bees).

  • Very cool info Rusty, thanks. :} Now I’m curious about your swarm traps that look like flowerpots. Do you put anything over the big opening or? Do you hang it upside down like a bell or how do you hang it? And finally, what do you use for a swarm lure? Thanks so much!! Newbee Sarah ;}

  • I always wondered what the nests looked like inside, usually time we get to them they are all torn apart. Great photos and story. Never realized that yellowjackets build a nest similar to that of the hornet. Interesting. Yellowjackets and wasps have hit the bees hard this year. Several people have reported their hives killed completely by them invading at the same time and the bees bearding on the outside of the hive and eventually being killed off by the critters. To trap, we use a soda bottle w/meat like baloney, hot dog, etc, (good garbage meat) with sugar water, vinegar and some fruit, like apple or banana, let it ferment out on the vine and the wasps and hornets love it, the bottles are filled in no time. You have to put them out early, tho, like March/April, to catch the queens and that stops them from producing in the spring. They have been devastating this year. I, too, run entrance reducers with robbing screens and that pretty much keeps them out, but sometimes they do get inside. A lot of people won’t run the robbing screens, and that is why they lose their hives. Keep them bees safe! Thanks for the great post! I always learn something on this site. It’s the best!

    • Thanks, Debbie. I usually hang wasp traps in early spring, but for some reason, I never got around to it this year. Results: lots of wasps!

  • Hi Rusty, I love your bee blogs.

    I put wasp traps out early to catch the queens. Bait with grape jelly, juice bottles with a small slot cut at the top works well.

  • The yellowjackets are terrible here in western NC this year. They are all around the entrance of our hive, bothering me and my bees! I had to switch to feeding internally but there are still 5 or more always around the entrance, sometimes rolling around fighting with my girls. Is there any way to trap just them and not catch honey bees too?

  • Hi Rusty,

    Love and faithfully read your website. Thank you for helping all beekeepers, which I am trying to become.

    I have a question concerning varroa and oxalic acid. Hopefully you could provide guidance. I want to try to use vaporizer to treat my hives. I have kept all honey supers on the hives so the girls have some food over the winter. If there is any honey remaining I would like to harvest that for myself in the spring. I need guidance in using/not using vaporized honey for consumption.

    John Wheeler
    (Silverdale, WA)

    • John,

      Legally, according to the official US EPA pesticide label for oxalic acid, you cannot use OA by any application method while honey supers are in place. It says, “Do not use when honey supers are in place to prevent contamination of marketable honey.”

      Many expect this to eventually be changed because oxalic acid is found naturally in honey in variable amounts. So it’s impossible to tell where the OA came from. However, that’s the law as it now stands.

      One could parse the warning sentence and examine the word “marketable.” Does that mean if you don’t sell your honey, you don’t have to worry? Maybe.

      An alternative would be to remove the supers, treat, and then return the supers after a few days.

  • As always such interesting info! This time I learned that the swarm trap that I use is the same as yours, and I was using it backwards! Duh!

  • Thanks for the post! I have had a number of yellowjackets in the apiary. There were two ground nests in our yard near where people might walk so “I took care of them” but there seem to be plenty of others.

    They seem to be out flying in cool weather before the bees. The temperature was low 40’s this morning and I saw them go into one of my top bar hives. Through the window I could see the honey bee cluster is set back a few combs, so the yellowjackets can visit the combs near the entrance before the temperatures rise. Cheeky little buggers.

  • Good informational topics.

    I lost two hives this year after over twenty years with no losses. Lots of yellowjackets and white-faced hornets around. They were quite possibly the cause so I will try baiting for them in the spring of ’18.


    SE PA.

  • I keep robbing screens April through November, so wasps are not a problem for my bees. I have learned to appreciate wasps, as they are scavengers. And they look interesting and beautiful to me, even though I got stung by them (it was my fault, though). My husband refers to some of them as ‘little resistors’, because they do resemble resistors (I am an engineer) 😀

  • So it seems to me the big difference is orientation. The combs on these wasp nests are horizontal and the combs in our bee hives are vertical. I’m wondering about why the difference? What would be the benefit of vertical or horizontal? Both hexagonal structures but in reality very different. Those yellowjackets might actually be sort of confused in the bee hive!

    My guess is that it is the stores. Honey needs the slightly up tilted cells to keep it from running out. But why would a wasp want horizontal comb with the individual cells oriented up and down? I would think nature has a reason.

    • Herb,

      No, the combs in the wasp nest were definitely vertical, just like a honey bee would build them. After I read your comment, I even went outside to check, holding the nest in position inside the trap. You can see it much better in person.

  • Wow. The hornets and wasps that start nests under the eves of my house each year build them out horizontally. The individual cells are vertical but at least that first layer is horizontal. I cannot say that I have dissected many paper nests like you did (beyond the occasional rock thrown at one as a boy) but a friend of mine has one on display at their house. Now I need to go check that out.

  • So after reading these posts….Im assuming the critters we call wasps.. yellow and black..who come inside on the wood for our stove…and warm up to buzz desperately at the windows….must be hibernation- interrupted queens? I guess i wont feel so bad eliminating them after seeing them at my hives this last year!!

  • Do you still have the aerial yellowjacket nest? I collect them and that looks like a great one for the collection. Hoping to hear back.

  • I’m in Lake Bluff, Illinois. If there is something I need to do to get my hands on this, what do I need to do?

  • Rusty,

    I am very new at backyard beekeeping and I just discovered that my little hive was invaded and destroyed by small white worms, maybe wax worms. How do I protect future hives from these worms?

    • Hi Sandra,

      Wax moths are well-known opportunistic invaders. What that means is they take advantage of colonies that are weak because of some other reason. In a normal, healthy, strong colony, wax moths can’t get started because the worker bees get rid of them. But once there is a problem in the hive (often varroa mites, brood diseases, or even starvation) the wax moths can multiply without interference from the bees. So-called wax worms are not really worms. Instead, they are the larval stage of the wax moth.

      That means the best way to protect a colony from wax moths is to keep it free of diseases, pests, and other hive invaders. In addition, make sure it is well-fed and in a safe location away from pesticides, excessive moisture, and high heat. Like other bee hive insects, there isn’t any effective way to kill the wax moths because any insecticide would kill both the wax moths and the bees. By keeping the bees as healthy as possible, they will do the hard work for you and kill the moths.

      Wax moths are tricky to deal with and they can make a monumental mess of the hive. Usually, the new bees you get will be able to clean up most of the mess, although things go more quickly if you can get rid of the worst of the combs and any thick webbing.

      In my opinion, the best wax moth control results from good varroa mite management. If a colony is dealing with a varroa infestation, it may not have the ability to also deal with wax moths.

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