predators

The ultimate yellowjacket trap is in your trash

Here, yellowjackets are lined up on the door to a storage shed, making it difficult to enter. The nest is protected inside the shed.

You don’t need any fancy equipment to trap yellowjackets. They can be lured with many types of food: sweet, savory, or both.

If your home is anything like mine, every fall it’s overrun with yellowjackets. Lucky for you, the best yellowjacket trap can be made with an empty plastic bottle, food scraps, and a little vinegar.

Not so lucky for your honey bees, yellowjackets are meat-eaters with a hankering for tasty insects they can feed to their young. You can often find them hovering around your bee hives, just waiting for an opportunity to pluck a bee out of the air and take it home. But they are not picky and will take dead bees, too.

Yellowjackets are not bees, but just barely

Regular people like to comfort themselves by saying wasps are not bees. Not-so-regular people (entomologists) say that bees are merely vegetarian wasps. They are so closely related that it can be hard to tell them apart.

The major distinction between the two is diet, wasps being carnivores and bees being vegetarians. Once the pollen-eating wasps broke off from the other groups, they evolved structures to help them collect pollen and lost the structures for hunting. But the two groups are so similar that most of what you know about one holds true for the other.

To make things even more confusing, there are some meat-eating bee species and some pollen-eating wasp species. Anything to keep us muddled.

Yellowjackets are a threat to fall honey bees

The number of yellowjackets in a colony increases from spring until fall. But the number of honey bees in a colony decreases from spring until fall. That means a nest of yellowjackets is most dangerous to your bees late in the season.

Like most other wasps, adult yellowjackets need a source of sugar to keep them going. It takes lots of energy to round up food for the family, so they like sweet treats. In nature, they get sweets from nectar and fruit. Wherever humans live, they also find sweets at picnic tables, in garbage cans, and in bee hives loaded with honey.

Rotting fruit is plentiful in the fall. Apples, pears, plums, and other fruits rot and drop to the ground where they become covered with hungry yellowjackets. When rotting fruit starts to ferment, it produces acetic acid (or vinegar). Yellowjackets associate the vinegar smell with fruit, so they come running when they smell it.

We can use their food preferences against them

Once you know that wasps are attracted to meat and acetic acid, you know how to bait your yellowjacket traps. Every beekeeper has a favorite recipe. Some like to use tuna fish, some prefer bacon, and some swear by smoked turkey. Add a little vinegar to the mix, and you will trap hundreds or even thousands of wasps.

I’ve noticed some variation in the wasps’ preference in different regions of the country, probably because of different genetic lines. So if your first recipe doesn’t work, change it a bit and try again. Or try several at once. It won’t take long to find the perfect combination.

Ironically, the smell of dead wasps attracts more wasps. They have no scruples against eating their kin, so if you leave the first trapped wasps in the jug, the scent will soon attract others.

The supplies you need for a yellowjacket trap

Ready to dig in your garbage pail? Let’s go. Here are the things you will need:

  • A plastic bottle (I like to use a gallon milk jug, but a 2-liter plastic soda bottle works, too)
  • A piece of fruit or meat (favorites are tuna fish, cat food, lunch meat or soft apples, pears, or bananas)
  • ½ cup sugar (white is fine, brown has a stronger odor)
  • 1 cup vinegar (any type)
  • 1 cup water
  • A few drops of dish soap (liquid, any brand)

Instructions for making your trap

  1. Cut the bottle. This is the hardest part of the entire project. Plastic can be tough, so take care not to cut yourself. You can use scissors or a box cutter. Cut a hole near the neck of the bottle as shown below.
  2. Put your bait (meat, fruit, or both) in the bottle.
  3. Stir together the sugar, water, vinegar, and a few drops of dish soap.
  4. Pour the liquid over the bait.
  5. Tie a string to the handle of the milk jug.
  6. Hang the trap from a tree, eave, plant hanger, or whatever you have. To catch the most wasps, it should be between 3 and 10 feet off the ground.

Details about the ingredients

Bait: Any meat or fruit will do. If it isn’t smelly and disgusting when you start, it will be shortly, so don’t worry about finding rotten food. Even leftovers from yesterday’s buffalo wings will work.

Sugar: Any sugar will do but dark brown sugar is quite fragrant compared to granulated white sugar. Wasps must not be very discerning because any sugar seems to work.

Vinegar: If you don’t have vinegar, substitute a quarter teaspoon of yeast. This will quickly ferment the sugar and give you the acetic acid odor of rotting fruit.

Water: The purpose of the water is to drown the wasps. Once they become wet, they won’t be able to fly out of the jug.

Dish soap: Soap breaks the surface tension of the water, allowing the water to be quickly absorbed by the wasps so they drown faster.

A homemade yellowjacket trap from a gallon plastic jug. You can make this trap in ten minutes and catch loads of yellowjackets, hornets, and other wasps.
You can make this trap in ten minutes and catch loads of yellowjackets, hornets, and other wasps.

Will other insects be caught by the traps?

For sure, other insects will be caught. Last year, just as an experiment, I counted all the insects in one of my jug traps that hung for one week from a tree near my apiary. I found:

  • 401 wasps
  • 32 moths
  • 26 blow flies
  • 9 sweat bees
  • 5 earwigs
  • 4 beetles
  • 3 honey bees
  • 1 bumble bee

Most likely the total number of dead bees (13) was far less than the number that would have succumbed to the 400 wasps. I can’t say you will never catch any bees, but the number isn’t high.

When you use both meat and sweets in your trap, you are less likely to catch bees. The scent of rotting meat soon overpowers the scent of fruit, so bees take a pass.

Commercial wasp traps use pheromone lures

Pictured below is my favorite kind of commercial yellowjacket trap, which is a good substitute for the homemade kind. The plastic portion can be saved and reused year-to-year, and the lure inside can be purchased anew at the beginning of each wasp season.

They are safe for the environment because the lure is not a poison or insecticide–it is just a compound that mimics a pheromone that yellowjackets are attracted to. Once inside the one-way trap, the yellowjackets cannot find their way back out so they eventually die of dehydration.

The lures last about ten weeks and attract twelve different species of yellowjacket (Vespula). The pheromone is quite genus-specific; in several years of using the traps I have never seen a single bee end up in one.

I usually hang the traps in the trees away from the bee hives about mid-August or whenever I notice the yellowjacket population increasing. The ten-week lure takes me into mid- or late October and by that time the first freeze has occurred. A good freeze takes care of any remaining yellowjacket adults, so you are then free of them until the next fall.

Commercial yellowjacket traps can remove large numbers of wasps from your home and garden. They use pheromones to attract wasps.
Commercial yellowjacket traps can remove large numbers of wasps from your home and garden.

Yellowjacket traps can save your bee hives

Since I began using traps I haven’t lost any hives to yellowjackets. The year before I bought the traps I lost three hives to yellowjackets, one here and two at an out-apiary . . . and it was a gruesome sight. Since then, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of trapping the wretched little bee-eating monsters. I have yet to find a good use for a live yellowjacket, so dead works for me.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

PS: Don’t forget to net and pinch wasp queens in the spring. It can really help!


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32 Comments

  • I’ll have to get one of those if the wasps get bad. I haven’t seen many yellow jackets this year (so far). I’ve noticed a few black & white wasps hanging around, but no major trouble around the hive entrances yet. All of my hives seem strong enough to defends themselves anyway. Very pleased with that.

    I noticed some dragonflies hanging around the hives last week. I assumed they were chowing down on a few bees. They swooped down right over the hives like Spitfires. They weren’t around for long though.

  • Put out yellow jacket traps!!!!

    Yesterday I was propping up apple tree branches and stepped on a yellow jacket hive. Never saw it. Must have stomped it pretty well. Ended up with (best count) 26 yellow jacket stings. They make honey bees feel like loving babies. Only stung by our two honey bee hives twice so far this year. One over achiever actually stung my finger through my bee gloves. Have to give her an A for effort. She was really working at digging her stinger in.

    Put out those yellow jacket traps!!! In the spring you may capture some yellow jacket queens. I got lazy this year and just recently put two traps out. Usually put them out in the spring. We started doing this before we got bees. They can be REALLY nasty.

    As an aside, we have had MANY more bumble bees this year than ever before. Hundreds of them working the flower garden. We have planted bee friendly flowers and herbs (in the flower and herb garden and elsewhere). With this wet spring, maybe that made a difference. Also lots of butterflies this year. The honey bees are working the mint hard right now. It grows around the trees we water with a sprinkler.

    One more honey harvest before we settle them in for the winter. We hope.

    Thanks for your rational blog.

  • Rraymond- I’m so excited to hear you talking about planting bee-friendly flowers! Native bees need all the help we can give them, and whatever you do for them is good for your honey bees too! I recently did a post on my blog about helping native pollinators that you might be interested in (http://www.pollinators.info/archives/helping-pollinators). You might also like the Pollinator Partnership Regional Planting Guides- you give them your zip code, and they give you a free booklet with pollinator-friendly plants for your region! Check it out on their site here: http://www.pollinator.org/guides.htm
    🙂

  • I bought a wasp trap today. I had to add apple juice and yellow jacket lure.

    It’s been hanging up for about an hour and already one bee is trapped inside.

    I think I picked the wrong wasp trap.

    Can you send me an email with a link to the one you’re using?

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m not a yellowjacket expert by any means, but I’ve learned over the years that what works best for us is to get these traps up NOW! The first warm days of spring the queens come out of hibernation and are looking for a nesting site. You can tell the queens from the workers because just like honey bees the queens are almost twice their size. If you catch the queens now before they can establish their nest it greatly reduces the yellow jacket problem in August, September & October. We’ve found that if you wait until then to put the traps up you’re fighting a losing battle. In 2010 I caught 8 queens in our traps in spring and had very few yellow jackets that year. Last year we had a long, cool, wet spring and putting the traps up just slipped my mind. I didn’t get them up until June or July and we had more of an issue with them. There are also lots examples of homemade traps you can make from plastic milk jugs on the net. Right now they really want protein, so a small piece of meat works as an attractant. In late summer/early fall they want sugar (honey).

    Darla

  • Hi,

    Just saw you post while looking for yellow jacket traps. We just started with bees this April, for our kiwi orchard. We had 2 hives, we got our first collection of wonderful honey and then . . . bam yellow jackets came and destroyed them. I set over a dozen of the store bought bag pheromone traps and it didn’t seem to phase them. We also had another 4 hives our beekeeper put at a different part of our property and 3 are gone. One is struggling to hang on.

    Am trying all the suggestions for traps I can but would love to try these. Where do you get them and the attractant?
    Here it is close to the end of October and I want to get as many as I can before they hibernate and start again in the spring.

    Frustrated in Aptos, CA
    :O(
    Andrea

    • Andrea,

      I think these traps, manufactured by Rescue! are probably similar to your store-bought ones. I got them at Home Depot. You are pretty far south and I don’t know how warm it stays through the winter where you are. Normally, all the yellow jackets are killed with the first freeze in the fall, except for the queens. The queens overwinter by themselves and start building nests the following spring. So the best time to put out the traps is in the early spring. If you can catch the queens, you can greatly decrease the yellow jackets in your area. However, if it doesn’t freeze where you are, then the entire nest can overwinter and that is much harder to deal with.

      The important thing in the fall is to close down the hives except for one tiny opening or put robbing screens over the entrances. The honey bees can defend a small opening, but if the opening is fully open, the yellow jackets can easily over-run them. I used to have hives destroyed by yellow jackets too, but with trapping in spring and closing down the entrances in early fall, I haven’t lost any in a number of years.

      • Thanks for the reply. Found them on Amazon. Am definitely on a yellow jacket mission! Am keeping traps up until I don’t catch anymore and hopefully will catch some queens. Put out a few homemade ones today and they are filling up already. I had no idea they were this bad here. Will be diligent thru spring for sure. Our “kiwi honey” was so amazing it’s worth it. Wish me luck.

        Andrea

        • Andrea,

          The queens won’t be flying this time of year. After they get their nest going in the spring, they stay home and keep laying eggs. The next time yellowjacket queens will fly is next spring.

          Kiwi honey sounds great. I have a few hardy kiwi vines (the little grape-like type), not enough for honey, but the bees just love the flowers and it’s fun to watch.

  • Hi, Rusty – Hi, Andrea,

    If you can find the yellowjacket nest – by waiting till the warmest part of the day when you will see them going in and out of the ground in large numbers – mark it quickly with a stick a few inches away. Then at evening, make up about 2 gallons of boiling water, add 1 quarter cup of dish soap. Wait till most of the wasps are back underground – for your safety as well as to kill as many as possible – then pour in the hot soapy water.

    I would bet the nest is somewhere in your orchard. To find it, you might set out some spoiled meat, which they prefer over fruit, and then see which way they fly off after feeding.

    Another method I have used, for a nest that was in a pile of compost, was again to wait till late evening when all were “indoors” then lay a plastic sheet over the pile and rock it down securely. When the sun rose, they all got cooked and became fine compost.

    To Rusty – how can we get people to quit calling them “bees”?

    Nan

    • Thanks Nancy,

      Have killed two nests already that I could locate, but we live in a valley surrounded by oak/redwood forests. I know they are not in our orchard as we rototill often. I have watched them fly off and they fly over to the other side of the valley.

      Am trapping aggressively thru the rest of fall and will trap like a son of a gun in spring! Now that I understand a bit more about their life cycle I can be more proactive :O) And of course, if I find a nest . . .they are history!

      Andrea

  • We have yellowjackets here in SW Idaho too. Hanging outside very much, having BBQ’s, etc., they have become my “show no mercy” enemies. I cannot tell you how many times I have fought with them, trying to protect my clean meat supply before I can get it on the grill … or even afterwards, when it comes off and is ready for human consumption. If you are into combat, an old racquet-ball racquet works better than a large spatula and can be entertaining while waiting for things to cook. The little buggers are aggressive, even more so as summer turns to fall. Before I quit drinking Dr. Pepper and the like, I had to keep the top covered to prevent getting a mouth sting on the next sip. They even go after a perfectly good dark ale, although wine seems fairly safe. They have a lot of gumption messing with my food, but mess with my hard-to-find favorite ale? No no!

    I have tried watching them to see where the nest might be, but have difficulty seeing where they went after they blend in with the background. Years ago, I was traversing a gentle hill on my tractor. It was a hot afternoon and noticed a finger-sized hole in the dry dirt that yellowjackets were using – BEFORE they noticed me (lucky for me). Without going into detail – just know that they did not survive and I had fun with fire. That was the only time I’ve been lucky enough to find the nest.

    We actively trap them in early spring, beginning at the first sighting of anything flying. We have trapped queens on several occasions (only early in the year), so I’m inclined to think that there may be more than one “local” nest site. Anyone have experience with this?

    Later in spring and summer, the traps’ pheromone-like lure is replenished regularly, as soon as activity seems to drop off (although my wife discovered she can stretch it a bit be adding a few drops of water to the lure-soaked cotton balls inside).

    Now, I have one more reason to dislike them… I wondered if they went after honey bees, so thanks for the great information from you and your readers’ comments. Does anyone know if black bald-faced hornets do similarly? Thanks again!

    • George,

      I’ve seen bald-faced hornets attack the honey bees in the air in front of the hive, wrestle them to the ground, and kill them right there. Then they take them away. Not fun to watch.

  • Hi Rusty, while I do not have honey bees, I do have plenty of yellowjackets in my garden and have found that nicotine tea and Dawn soap is deadly on them.

  • Hi all,

    I’ve found great info on here, thank you! I live in eastern Washington and also have large numbers of yellowjackets and try to trap the queens in spring. One of my friend’s heads was overrun with hidden hives we eventually found, but it was to the point we couple that even sit outside to enjoy the sun. The redneck way we got rid of a bunch was to take some deli meat or even a raw chicken leg, thigh, whatever, and we hung it from a tree with twine and underneath it, we put her dog’s kiddie pool filled with water. They will gorge themselves until they can’t fly. Within a half hour we had a minimum 50 drowned yellowjackets. If worse comes to worse this is a quick way to go.

  • I want to reiterate what Darla said. For the last 2 years I have put up the Rescue brand wasp traps in April. I can’t believe how many queen were caught! It greatly reduced the number of wasps I had in the fall!! I also asked my neighbors to do the same. It has really made a difference!

  • Reading your article in the BEE SCENE magazine is there anyway that you can send me a larger pic of the FOMO wasp trap thanks you great article !!

  • Thanks for the useful information in your article. If yellowjackets are becoming a problem in my place, learning how to keep these aggressive insects at bay would be my top priority.

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