honey bee threats

Wasps aplenty follow a mild winter

A long stretch of freezing weather is the best wasp control. Many of the overwintering queens succumb to the cold, which limits the nest density the following spring.

But after a mild winter such as we had on the Pacific Northwest coast, the queens thrive in vast numbers. This is the worst year I have seen—wasps aplenty are everywhere.

At my place, the bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are especially bad. They cruise six inches off the ground looking for prey, three or four circle every hive, and my garden is black with them.

This time of year the hornets and yellowjackets work in different ways. The ‘jackets scour the ground under the landing board selecting dead bees to take home. But the hornets get right in the traffic flow going to and from the hive. One will shadow a bee in flight, then attack in mid-air. When it succeeds at knocking the bee to the ground, it pounces, and a fight ensues.

The combatants make a distinct buzz, and I can usually find the pair by sound alone. They spin around as they fight, each trying to sting the other. But the hornets are huge and fat compared to the honey bees. It is not a fair fight.

I’ve netted hundred of hornets this year. When I swipe at them, I usually get one hornet and a half-dozen honey bees, then I dispatch the black-and-white and release the bees. Yesterday I was amazed to see a hornet attack a honey bee while they were both in the net—a novel take on the last supper.

A few days ago I was happily netting hornets and flattening them with a stone. (They make a nice crunch, like biting into a kernel of freshly popped corn.) I didn’t realize I was being watched until my husband muttered, “Hell hath no fury like a women scorned.” Hmm. I have to say I was flattered.

Do you remember the nest of aerial yellowjackets (Dolichovespula arenaria) I photographed just after it was destroyed by an unknown assailant? I was relieved for my bees, but within two weeks that nest was completely rebuilt. I photographed the refurbished nest just in time because when I looked again, it was creamed once more—torn to shreds—with even less remaining than the first time.

The devastated nest reminded me that, while it’s not easy being a honey bee, it’s not easy being a wasp either. Churchill had a quip for that: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”


Aerial-yellowjacket nest with wasps aplenty

This is the repaired nest of aerial yellowjackets about 2 weeks after I discovered it torn apart. The long dangling piece on the right was probably part of the original nest. © Rusty Burlew.


This is an enlargement of the two wasps you can see at the center top of the nest. The nest is high up, so this is the best shot I was able to get.


  • Slightly north of you in coastal BC, the wasps are the worst this year that I can ever remember. The Rescue traps in the apiary are filling within a day, and for the first time ever I am being stung as I beekeep…not by bees but wasps. I have robbing screens on all the hives…again a first. Wasps are all very well and an interesting part of Nature’s plan, but not in the beeyard!!!

  • I love the smell (sound) of dying (crunching) black bald-faced hornets in the morning! Earlier this spring, they took a liking to a not-so-sealed outbuilding that was still under construction. Every morning, with three fly swatters located strategically throughout the building, I must have smacked between 75 and 100 over a period of about eight weeks…but alas, very few this year since that battle.

    As for the aerial yellow jackets…I was educated just a few weeks ago. I saw a nest up high on the house, but assumed they were bald faced hornets, since I thought that yellowjackets were all ground nesting. A closer look, some spray from a convenient window (after removing screen) and a long stick to knock the nest down revealed dead yellowjackets! My dog is happier too. 🙂

    We still have some of both around, but numbers seem reduced, at least for the present.

    P.S. A round or two of 12 gauge number nine shot does a fine job on those aerial nests built in trees, but finding them is not always easy. (Just don’t shoot the house!).

  • In MN this is the time of the year that they abound, as well. My advice to people is to deal w/ them aggressively early in the year when each you see is likely an over-wintered queen out starting the colony build-up work. Generally I’ve found this is helpful around homes & cabins. Out in the beeyards they do bring considerable havoc and yes are all over and inside the colonies.

  • I’m keeping my fingers crossed in Vancouver, Washington. It has been dry and I expected a bad wasp season, but this year I’ve not seen a single hornet, and—so far—very few yellowjackets. Got my robber screens on my one weaker hive. The rest are so mobbed with bees the predators are afraid of those landing boards! But there are still a few months of wasp season, so I’m knocking on wood…

  • The nest is fascinating, it looks like a ball of wool or strands of hair. I suppose the wasps are only trying to survive, same as any of us.

  • Your photography never ceases to amaze me. If you haven’t already, you should sell your work on some of the stock sites for some extra cash.

  • Thank you Rusty.

    I have had the time recently to admire a couple of constructed nests, (saved from years past). Their exterior paper is a work of consummate craftsmanship, and the interior comb is equally remarkable.

    The warmer than average winter and summer seems to have produced conditions quite favorable to all except the professionals who are trying to keep up with control. I’ve ended up advising folk to contact the local collector, but also taught them how to use a can of hornet spray in case the collector never calls back — advice I rarely have given out in the past, but I’ve gotten word that he has not even been returning phone calls he is apparently so busy.

    (By the way, there are a a couple of products marketed as organic — I’ve not tested them.)

  • Rusty,

    I am here on the eastern side of Washington state and had a quick question about supers and robbing. With all the yellowjackets, hornets and dearth, I have reduced my hive entrances and put out traps, but would you pull all your full supers off and leave empties so as to reduce the robbing? Thanks Rusty!

    • Kimberlee,

      You can do either, but if you leave your honey supers in place and robbing gets going in spite of your precautions, you can lose the whole crop in no time. I take mine off, but there are many beekeepers who don’t. It’s like gambling.

  • Rusty, I really have enjoyed your posts regarding wasps. In the past I have considered them to be a complete nuisance but this year have taken the time to really observe their behaviour. Here in Alberta winters do control the wasp population. This spring I observed two yellowjacket queens trying to enter one of my hives. One of the girls gave up her life in dispatching one of them and I helped dispatch the other (crunch!)

    On the other hand, the wasps do help control the cabbage caterpillars and get rid of the dead bees. There is still lots of clover and alfalfa around here and hives are strong so the wasps and hornets aren’t a threat yet.

    • Bruce,

      You are right, wasps do much more good than bad. Still, but from a beekeeper perspective they’re a nuisance.

  • We had 2 full-blown aerial yellow-jacket nests under our eaves – they grew from about the size of a softball to a football to a soccer ball seemingly overnight. I was considering my options (and lamenting my inaction while they were still softball-sized) when I had to travel out of town at the end of July. It took a few days after I returned to notice there was no activity in either of the hives.None. Zero. Zilch. We’ve been watching them now for 2 weeks and have seen nothing, while some nearby smaller mud dauber wasps have remained active. Best guess? They succumbed to the heat wave (like I said, they built under the eaves, so maybe that was too close to the baking heat of the roof?). Never seen that before. Glad for it since they were on the same side of my house as the bee yard. Now I don’t have as much of a robbing issue as I thought I’d have. Sad, but better them than the girls… 🙂

  • Thanks for the information Rusty. Really bad yellowjackets at my apiary this year in Seattle. And, to add insult to injury, I went to my hives on Sunday and found a yellowjacket queen mating on top of one of my hives destroyed by the yellowjacket workers.

    I am going to follow your advice and be more-proactive in trying to find and kill the queens next spring. Then, if and when the workers start to show up, will try to locate and destroy the nests. It is just so frustrating to work all summer to keep hives at full strength only to watch them decline and die via the yellowjackets.


  • Hello Rusty,

    As a first year beekeeper in Puyallup, I am sadly facing a wasp invasion, but still hoping there is still hope! I did everything I knew to do, reduced the entrance, hung up traps. I will have to see what happens, and will also need to be more proactive next year. Thank you for your articles and suggestions. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. At this point, I still have bees, but the wasps seem to be taking over.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Michele,

      I would close the entrance and lock the bees inside until the wasps leave. It’s cool enough that the bees don’t need to be outside. The screened bottom will give them enough ventilation for a few days and you can add a screened inner cover if you want. Normally the wasps are dead by now, but we haven’t had a good freeze. Definitely take drastic measures.

  • Thank you, Rusty. We went out last night when I got your reply and closed them in. We took a better peek inside, and the colony is pretty small. I hadn’t realized until I started reading here that the wasps were actually killing the bees, I thought just getting the honey. They are all closed in now… we’ll just have to see what happens. In a few days if there are no wasps I’m guessing open the opening a bit again? Thanks again for your very quick reply.

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