The truth about yellowjackets is this: I never paid much attention to them until last year. Even when other beekeepers complained about yellowjackets ravaging their hives, it didn’t register with me. Sure, I used to see them around, but I didn’t think they could possibly cause a problem.
All that changed last fall. Maybe it was the “perfect storm” you always hear about, but all the environmental conditions came together to produce a bumper crop of those nasty creatures. I lost four hives and two nucs over the course of a month. One sultry September afternoon I sat cross-legged in front of a hive and squashed yellowjackets with my hive tool for over an hour. They were going in and out of the reduced entrance like they owned the place—which at that point they did. I lost the hive, of course, but it gave me a primal satisfaction to mash those things into a paste.
Unlike honey bees, yellowjackets are meat eaters. They like sugar and pollen too, so a honey bee hive is like a fine restaurant. The diners can chose between tender steaks (adult bees), succulent babes (larvae and pupae), garden salad (assorted pollens), and dessert (honey). Their table manners remind me of the paintings you see of ancient Roman feasts, where the guests are tossing bones on the floor for the dogs. The yellowjackets bit my bees in two and left whatever they didn’t want on the floor of the hive along with bits of comb and chunks of propolis. Heathens!
The term “yellowjacket” is an American appellation for yellow and black hornets in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula. Elsewhere, they are known as “wasps.” From a strictly ecological point of view they are beneficial insects that prey upon other pests—including agricultural pests—so technically I should like them. But that’s not going to happen.
The problem for beekeepers is that these insects are very closely related to honey bees. They all are in the order Hymenoptera—a name that refers to their diaphanous wings—and they have many similar patterns of behavior and life history. It is very hard to kill one without killing the other, which is bad news for beekeepers.
A strong hive of honey bees can fend off a normal load of yellowjackets, but a small hive, a weak hive, or an especially large crop of yellowjackets can lead to disaster. The most common way of controlling yellowjackets is the use of pheromones that lure the yellowjackets into a one-way trap. Also popular are homemade traps that use a meat lure (I hear they like smoked turkey) and a pan of water.
Non-beekeepers often have trouble distinguishing a yellowyacket from a bee, but yellowjackets are smooth and hairless and have faces that are either yellow or white. Just before they land they have a distinctive side-to-side flight pattern that is very different from the relatively smooth incoming flight of a honey bee.
If you are messing with yellowjackets, be careful. Unlike honey bees they can sting multiple times and they think of you as a big piece of meat.