What Do Homeowners Need to Know About Yellow Jackets?

Written by Chem-Wise on . Posted in Blog

Of all the stinging insects, yellow jackets are among the most feared. Even the name gives many people a sense of dread, as these insects are known to be aggressive and invasive. However, while most homeowners do know yellow jackets by name, there is a lot more to know about these stinging, nest-building insects. The following information will help you act more confidently when you encounter them.

Yellow Jackets Are Wasps, Not Bees

Perhaps because they are yellow and black in color, yellow jackets are often confused with or mistaken for bees. They actually belong to the social wasp family, which means they are more closely related to hornets and paper wasps than to bumblebees and honeybees.

Distinguishing between yellow jackets and bees is actually quite simple. Bees of all varieties are covered in tiny hairs. Yellow jackets — and other wasps for that matter — have smooth bodies. The typical yellow jacket is about one half inch long with a slender body and pinched-in waist. Most species of bees have rounder bodies with less-defined waists.

Yellow Jackets Eat Other Insects

Another important distinction between bees and yellow jackets has to do with their diets. Bees collect nectar from flowers and turn it into honey; they are vegetarians. Yellow jackets, in contrast, are omnivores, feeding on both plant and animals foods.

Other insects account for a large portion of the yellow jacket’s diet, especially in the summer. They feed on flies, spiders, and caterpillars. The yellow jacket’s mouth contains powerful digestive enzymes that break the insect flesh down into a nutrient-dense liquid. The adult yellow jacket can then feed this liquefied insect material to young yellow jacket larvae.

Yellow jackets do also have a sweet tooth. They feed on rotten fruit, tree sap, and some flower nectar. For this reason, if you have fruit trees on your property, you should clean up fallen fruits promptly to prevent an invasion of these insects in the fall. Trim your trees in the winter when yellow jackets are inactive. In the summer or fall, sap leaking from the tree may attract them.

Yellow Jackets Sting Readily

You’re wise to be wary of the yellow jacket’s sting. These insects are much more aggressive than bees. If you approach their nest, either knowingly or unknowingly, they will sometimes go after you in an attempt to sting. Once one yellow jacket stings, it releases pheromones — hormone-like scent chemicals — that draw other yellow jackets to the area and provoke them to attack.

If you come across a yellow jacket or a yellow jacket nest, the best thing to do is stay calm and quiet, and back away slowly. Do not try to swat at the insects, as this may make them respond more aggressively. Unlike bees, which usually lose their stingers and die after stinging a human, yellow jackets can sting again and again.

Most people experience redness, swelling, and pain after being stung by a yellow jacket. Care for a sting by washing the site with soap and water, holding an ice pack against it, and then applying a topical antihistamine product. You can also take an oral antihistamine, like diphenhydramine, if needed.

If you are allergic to stinging insects, you are probably allergic to yellow jackets and should seek emergency care as soon as you are stung. Also call 911 if you or someone you are with experiences shortness of breath, hives, swelling of the throat or tongue, or confusion after being stung — these are signs of a serious allergic reaction.

Yellow Jackets Like to Nest in Attics and Wall Voids

There are several major species of yellow jackets in the U.S., including the eastern yellow jacket, western yellow jacket, and German yellow jacket. Some species, including the eastern and western yellow jacket, prefer to build their nests in the ground. The German yellow jacket, however, is known for building nests in houses and has become quite a nuisance since introduced to the U.S. from Europe.

German yellow jackets use saliva and wood fibers to build their nests in attics, crawlspaces, and wall voids. Unlike many other yellow jacket species, they do not abandon their nests each year. Rather, they keep adding on to their nests, year after year, so the nests can become remarkably large.
Often, since a yellow jacket nest is hidden within a wall void or crevice, you will only be able to see a small portion of the nest. Do not attempt to poke around and deduce how large the nest may be; this is a good way to get stung.

Most nests have multiple entry points, and a pest control professional can locate and treat each one, ensuring the pests are fully eliminated. They will often treat the nest at night, as this is when the insects are less active.

If yellow jackets are nesting in your walls, do not assume winter will kill them off. They are less aggressive in the winter, but you should still have a professional apply insecticides to the nest.
Now that you know a bit more about yellow jackets, you’ll know what to do next time you come across a nest. Contact the experts at Chem-Wise Ecological Pest Management if you discover a nest on your property. We’re equipped to deal with yellow jackets, wasps, and other stinging insects.