pollinator threats predators

Yellowjacket café: the honey bee special

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.


Honey bees on the menu. Photo by the author.


  • Very interesting article and a refresher for me. I’ve been keeping bees (Carniolan) for three years now and may have had a run-in with these varmints myself—still trying to figure out what took place last year. I have an out apiary.

    I’ve never liked these beasts since I was severely stung by at least 13 when I was 11 years old—I came close to death from that.

    Another nasty thing that yellow jackets do is bite you and they can deliver venom that way too, I am told.

    Bee good and have a honey of a day!

  • Yellowjackets, I have never really liked them either. Now I really don’t! I have a hive that was doing well, packing in the honey, almost completely drawing out the top deep box with comb. I put a honey super on the other hive in the pair I keep up north and thought I would be able to do so with this hive within a few weeks. That is when my friend, whose land the hives were on, was a little worried that this hive wasn’t doing as well, his words; ‘there aren’t nearly as many bees flying around as there are at the other hive’. He insisted I come take a look. So I did. He was right, I inspected the hive and determined that the queen somehow died.

    [mid June] I found another queen and introduced her by the usual way. A week later, the queen was walking around in the hive, plenty of honey stores, very little brood, (stole a frame of brood from the healthy hive), and diminishing bees. I thought they would be all right. I did notice, however, that the empty brood frames seemed to be chewed open. I wasn’t sure what this meant, maybe from the emerged bees? Yellowjackets were present, earwigs too, but not in great quantities.

    [first week of August] Disastrous, still some bees, couldn’t find the queen, honey stores almost gone, no brood, yellowjackets everywhere, earwigs too. I believe they have decimated this hive, sad!

    But I am not done! Not beat! Traps, yes, get some yellowjacket traps. That’s what I will do. Yes-sir-eee!
    Ya learn something new all the time!

    Willow Creek Honey

    • Cliff,

      Not sure what you mean. If you are referring to the blog posts, they are dated in the lower left corner. This one is dated. July 17, 2010.

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