When yellowjacket traps don’t work

A reader from Oregon wrote to say his purchased yellowjacket traps did nothing to stop yellowjackets. A northern California reader said she left the traps hanging all spring and summer and captured one yellowjacket, even though she could see them flying all around her garden and beehives. What gives?

The problem is usually one of mistaken identity. Although we refer to most yellow-and-black waspy-looking things as “yellowjackets,” the reality is more complex.

The first thing to remember is wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets are all wasps. They may be different species or different genera, but they all fall into the wasp group. The second thing of note is that a “yellow jacket” (two words) is an outerwear garment made from yellow fabric—a different topic altogether. I have both.

Most yellowjackets are in the genus Vespula. Usually, these live in underground cavities and can deliver a series of nasty stings. They are difficult to distinguish from one another, but if you’re inclined, the pattern of stripes on the abdomen can give you clues to their identity.

Aerial yellowjackets

However, one common yellowjacket is in a different genus. This species does not live underground; instead, it builds a large bulbous paper nest in a tree. If no trees are available, as in some urban areas, this wasp will build its paper nest on the side of a building.

These tree-nesters are commonly called aerial yellowjackets since they nest in the air, not underground. Aerial yellowjackets are in the genus Dolichovespula, along with a close relative, the bald-faced hornet.

An aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria) from Canada. Public Doman photo.
An aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria) from Canada. These nest in trees, not in the ground. Public Doman photo.

Bald-faced hornets

Most North Americans have run into a bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) at least once. These wasps are widespread in Canada and the US, especially on the west coast, in the Rocky Mountains, and throughout the eastern and southeastern states. Bold black-and-white markings, including a white patch on the face, give them their common name. You may also hear them called blackjackets, white-faced hornets, or spruce wasps.

Like the aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria), bald-faced hornets live in trees. They build large paper nests by chewing wood into a pulp with saliva and then gluing it in place. The nest can be huge, with 400–700 workers. Their populations build throughout the season, with the maximum number occurring in July through October. They love nothing more than a delicious meal of honey bees to serve their young.

A bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, drinking from a figwort. Photo by Rusty Burlew.
A bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, drinking from a figwort. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Paper wasps

To add to the confusion, paper wasps are also mistaken for yellowjackets, especially the yellow and black ones such as the golden paper wasp and the European paper wasps. Paper wasps are in yet another genus, Polistes. They build “umbrella nests” that are much smaller than the nests of Dolichovespula, and they have a stalk that makes them look like an inverted umbrella. The nests often hang from porch ceilings and eaves.

Although they, too, are predators of other insects, the smaller nests house fewer individuals. Polistes have long legs that dangle below their bodies as they fly, making them easy to identify.

This European paper wasp, Polistes dominula, nested under the eaves of my house. Photo by Rusty Burlew.
This European paper wasp, Polistes dominula, nested under the eaves of my house. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

What’s in the yellowjacket trap?

Pheromones are often used to bait the commercial traps. But many traps that are labeled to catch “yellowjackets” are designed to lure insects in the genus Vespula. Vespula, as you now know, does not include paper wasps, aerial yellowjackets, or bald-faced hornets.

When you want to capture these others, you must look for traps that specifically list them. Remember, pheromones are very specific: they are not one-size-fits-all. Traps for these others exist, but you need to 1) figure out which insects you have and then 2) look for them on the label.


Personally, I have found that nothing catches a broad spectrum of wasps like brown sugar and water. Others like to make meat traps or yeast traps. It’s up to you, but it always helps to know what you have before you try to get rid of it.

Honey Bee Suite

Note: The top image shows a group of bald-faced hornets at their nest in my backyard.

*This post contains an affiliate link.


  • I have some Rescue YellowJacket and WHY traps, and I’ve also used the brown sugar and water in a milk jug. The former for when I’m feeling lazy and the latter for when I’m feeling cheap. A bit of added canned cat food will enhance any of them, but none of them work as well as I keep hoping. If the yellowjackets would stay out of the beeyard, I would just learn to live with them. Considering my success rate of fighting them I should probably do that anyway.

    • I found that the cat food, dish soap, and water gets rid of lots of wasps and yellowjackets. I buy cat food for my cats anyway, so it’s cheap and easy.

  • I have had great success here in Michigan with the store bought clear yellow plastic wasp traps with an inch or so of sugar water with a dash of apple cider vinegar.

  • In the UK we have two common species of wasps (we don’t call them yellowjackets), which are a problem to honey bees. These are the common wasp, and the German wasp, which are very similar. I find that a mixture of fruit jam (which you call jelly!) and water is very effective in traps. A drop of detergent in the liquid makes sure that any wasps that fall in drown very quickly.

  • Hello Rusty! I still use successfully the brown sugar and water traps that you had posted a few years ago…I have told countless beekeepers about this simple recipe, few have tried it, preferring something “store bought” that doesn’t work as well as these traps (even though store bought was quite special for me when I was a child). Many blessings to you and yours this year. Deb C, western Catskills.

  • I live near the woods and have ground-nesting yellowjackets, aerial yellowjackets, European paper wasps, and bald-faced hornets. I even have “yellowjackets” in my closet that I use when it rains.

  • Last year I killed quite a few queens in spring. I think it really helped keep the numbers down in the fall.

  • USE the cheap window screen with vertical tunnel on entrance and you will 100% eliminate robbing, yellow jackets, and have calmer bees (alarm pheromone reduced so bees aren’t witchy). It works because only about 2 bees can fit in tunnel. Bees defend bottom of tunnel. So robbers and yellow jackets don’t venture down tunnel even if they did figure it out. They don’t. You staple plastic coated fiberglass window screen across the entire entrance. Insert a long screwdriver to help you staple sides of tunnel. USE an office stapler. It’s ok if it doesn’t go all the way in. Just bend it with your finger. The tunnel runs vertical 1-2 inches above the hive entrance. If your hive has a traffic jam, add more tunnels. Don’t widen them. Wide tunnels allow robbers in. Insert a leaf or thin stem in to tunnel. Drones figure out tunnel just fine. If a robber got through tunnel, they wouldn’t get out. Robbers are confused by the entrance screen. This is not a robber screen. Robber screens fail because once the bee flies off to attack the invader, they leave a gap. A large swarm could overpower a robber screen. They can’t overpower a tunnel that limits the number of bees. Robbers don’t like traffic jam. A weak hive or 3 frame nuc could easily be safe with screen verticle tunnel. How many bees does it take to block the tunnel? 3?4?. Bees also learn to use different tunnels for different things. Orientation flights will happen from one tunnel, while nectar foragers begin handing off at the screen. Unloading is much quicker. Pollen carriers will use different tunnel than orientation flights. Nothing is absolute, but you notice a pattern develops. Drones will typically stay outside until nightfall. Less bees in brood nest means less opportunity for a varroa mite. Drift is much less an issue. Try it on 1 hive. Put it on at night. Make 4 tunnels, but block 2 until you know if they need more access. Bearding doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore. Bees can ventilate and no summer dearth robbing death matches. 1 roll is $7 at hardware store. It covers LOTS of hives. Seems stupid to even worry about any bee hive threats with such a cheap, easy, quick fix. I can’t remember the last time I saw robbing. Oh, yeah, it was before I added window screen tunnels.

    • Steph,

      This is an interesting idea. Would it be possible to take some photographs of the idea for those of us who may find pictures easier to follow than written directions? Thanks. I would like to try this idea. Regards, Don

  • Here’s an interesting quote from a study from the Dept. of Entomology from UC-Riverside (the V. in this case is Vespula):

    Aerial-nesting species (Dolichovespula) and species such as V. vulgaris and V. germanica do not respond well to heptyl butyrate and do not forage protein as do V. pensylvanica.

    Heptyl Butyrate is an attractant found in the bait of many commercial yellowjacket traps.

    Here’s a link to the article ‘Developing Baits for the Control of Yellowjackets in California.’ I think it’s well worth the read:

    And a link to an article with pictures of different species of yellowjackets: https://greennature.com/yellowjacket-pictures/

  • Rusty, I had a cousin by marriage that ran a cider press in his backyard in the fall. As we were watching the yellowjackets (ground-nesting, I believe) come round to either our hot dog lunch or the apple leavings, John opined that they had a season for what food they preferred. I think sweets first, then meat. Have you ever heard such a thing, or seen any research? It sort of makes sense to me that they might need higher sugar in their diet early. But everyone I’ve ever mentioned it to laughed me out of the room. But I think I’ve observed it.

    The main thing the conversation did for me was allow me to observe the wasps as they took their meal and flew away. Instead of trapping them, it can be just as effective to feed them away from your activities.

    On another note, one time I was forced to eradicate a nest. A water line was being dug by hand, and my labor struck until I solved the threat. YouTube told me about a ShopVac method and it worked very well, soapy water in the vac and just stick the hose in the nest. It did break my heart a little when I saw the queen in my soapy water.

    • Paula,

      Good for you! You are very observant. Wasps do have seasonal appetites based on brood rearing. For themselves, adult wasps eat sweet things: fruit, syrup, sugar, soda pop in the bottom of cans, and even flower nectar. This is how they get the energy to fly and keep themselves warm. However, they feed their young a high-protein diet of insects or meat that they partially digest and then regurgitate for the larvae.

      That means in early spring you will find them eating sweets, in late spring, summer, and early fall they will be hunting for insects and meat, and then in late fall (after the brood has matured) they go back to sweets again. This is particularly evident in the social wasps like yellowjackets.

      So, all those people who laughed at you know nothing about wasp diets. You’re my kind of scientist and you get the last laugh.

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