Table of contents
- Yellowjackets are not bees, but just barely
- Yellowjackets are a threat to fall honey bees
- We can use their food preferences against them
- The supplies you need for a yellowjacket trap
- Instructions for making your trap
- Details about the ingredients
- Will other insects be caught by the traps?
- Commercial wasp traps use pheromone lures
- Yellowjacket traps can save your bee hives
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
- 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.
- Put your bait (meat, fruit, or both) in the bottle.
- Stir together the sugar, water, vinegar, and a few drops of dish soap.
- Pour the liquid over the bait.
- Tie a string to the handle of the milk jug.
- 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.
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.
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.
Honey Bee Suite
PS: Don’t forget to net and pinch wasp queens in the spring. It can really help!
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