(Note: the first yellow jackets you see in the spring are likely to be queens who've emerged from hibernation and are looking to build a new nest. The easiest way to get rid of them is to put out some traps--like the RESCUE Yellow Jacket traps mentioned below--with attractant as bait. If you kill the queens in the early spring, there will be fewer yellow jackets in the area in the summer.)
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In July I discovered my first yellow-jacket nest when I was yanking up some ivy in our yard. The air was suddenly full of bits of "leaves" that landed on me and started to sting. I slapped them away and ran. They followed, so I ran into the house and then into the shower, which I turned on full blast. I knew that honeybees die if they become drenched, so I hoped that yellow jackets would do the same. Several had been caught in my hair and they fell to the floor, soggy and groggy, where I could easily dispose of them.
We didn't know much about yellow jackets then and thought that the nest would just have maybe 50 insects or so. The area was covered by lots of ivy, bark, and leaves, so it was hard to find the opening to the nest. We knew it was somewhere within a 3-foot area, so my husband tried to smother the nest with soapsuds. He killed a lot of yellow jackets that way, but after he figured he'd killed 50-100 wasps and we still saw a lot of activity in the area, we decided to go for something more lethal.
Spectracide Wasp & Hornet Killer comes in an aerosol spray can. It has a jet spray that can reach up to 25 feet. The label says it kills "wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, scorpions, mud daubers and tent caterpillars," and "kills on contact." It further promised that "this product's powerful spray will also kill insects that return to the nest over the next few days." This was important. The best time to kill yellow jackets is after they have all returned the nest, which doesn't happen until around sunset. It was summer in Puget Sound, which meant it didn't get dark till after 10pm. We didn't want to have to go out there at midnight to destroy the nest.
Destroying the Nest
The directions say to stand a safe distance from the nest and to spray. I assume you can then move closer, as the directions recommend spraying the nest until it's soaked, then waiting at least 24 hours before removing the nest.
If you are getting rid of a nest, protective clothing is a REALLY good idea.
Normally yellow-jacket nests have just one opening, but a few days earlier when he'd been trying to smother the nest, my husband had dug up the ground in the area, so he might have made additional openings.
My husband donned his protective clothing and sprayed the area pretty heavily. He said that the spray killed the live yellow jackets easily. Since we weren't sure if he'd gotten all the openings, he waited a few days, then treated the area again with what was left in the can (there wasn't much). I bought another can in case we needed it, but we didn't. To be extra safe, we also hung a Rescue Yellow Jacket Trap over the area to catch any stragglers. A month later when we checked the area and removed all the ivy there wasn't any sign of a nest.
Other Information (from can)
-Shake well before use.
-NEVER USE IT INDOORS.
-Do not use it in/on electrical equipment.
-Do not use on evergreen/holly (damage may result).
-Active Ingredients: prallethrin and lambda cyhalothrin
RESCUE Yellow Jacket Traps
(I've used these for years and really like them. They are a non-toxic, reusable way to reduce the number of yellow jackets in the area.)
The traps are yellowish, see-through plastic cylinders with a solid yellow base and a little cone on the inside. The bait goes on the bottom of the trap. Yellow jackets crawl in through holes in the base to get the bait. After that they can't find their way back out. Their instincts cause them to fly up through the cone and into the upper compartment where they eventually die. Even if they stay in the lower compartment, they tend to go up toward the light and don't see the entrance holes.
The trap comes with one application of attractant (bait), which is supposed to keep luring them for a week or two. You can buy more attractant if you want. I usually just bait the traps with a chunk of turkey ham (it works REALLY well). However, at certain times yellow jackets prefer sweets (at these times the attractant is more effective than turkey ham). For example, I would use the attractant in the early spring (April--or March for warmer climates) when the queens are out looking to build nests.
If you have a problem with yellow jackets, but don't know where the nest is, these traps help reduce the number of yellow jackets flying around.
Some Facts About Yellow Jackets
DON'T SMASH THEM. If you smash a yellow jacket it will release a pheromone that will alert other yellow jackets and cause them to attack you. If you swat frantically at yellow jackets they may become aggravated and attack. They can sting MULTIPLE times. (If you need to shoo them away, do so gently.)
Yellow jackets are wasps, not bees. Although they are attracted to sweet things, they also like meat. In the summer when food is scarce, they will go after the same things people like (picnic food, fruit, barbecues). People have gotten stung in the back of their throat by accidentally swallowing a yellow jacket that was investigating an open can of soda.
Perfumes and bright colors can also attract them.
At night they can be attracted to the light from a flashlight. If you are going after a nest after dark, cover the light with RED cellophane (they supposedly can't see red).
Nests are usually 3-6 inches in diameter and are usually built underground (though the nastier and hardier German yellow jackets--which have been increasing in the US--tend to build above ground). The queen starts the nest in the spring when the weather starts to warm up. The nest has a small opening, about the size of a nickel, that is guarded by a sentry. The population peaks in the summer (sometimes fall) and can range from a few hundred to several thousand wasps. All but the queen die off in the winter and the nest is not reused. (A week of near-freezing or lower temperatures is usually enough to kill a normal nest). Before the weather gets too cold, the queen abandons the nest and finds a place to hibernate (usually a tree stump or under loose bark).
The first yellow jackets seen in the spring are probably queens looking to build a nest.
HOWEVER, in warmer climates or places with mild winters, the nests don't die off and can become HUGE, holding multiple queens and tens of thousands of wasps. Alabama's mild winter in 2006 is believed to be the cause of some enormous nests that were found in the southern part of the state the following summer. One was the size of a VW Bug. One in South Carolina had a quarter of a million yellow jackets. It's unclear whether a cold winter could kill off these massive nests. (Um...don't go after these armed with a few cans of bug spray--CALL A PROFESSIONAL.)
A yellow jacket can range a 1000 feet from its nest. In late summer and fall, food is harder to find, causing the yellow jackets to range further and become more aggressive.
If you suspect there is a nest in a small area and you want to find out where it is, try putting some food out for the yellow jackets (fish is good because it's easy for them to break off bits, but you can also cut other meat into small pieces). Watch for a yellow jacket to break off a piece. It will carry the food straight back to its nest. (This is what's meant by a beeline.)
Some consider yellow jackets to be beneficial, as they prey upon flies and other pests. Web sites sponsored by wasp-killing products are biased and don't mention that yellow jackets do anything good.
What to Do If You Are Stung
-WASH THE WOUND gently with soap and water to remove the venom.
-PAPAIN (a papaya enzyme) can break down the protein in the venom. It can be found in Lawry's Adolph's Meat Tenderizer (check the ingredients to make sure it contains papain and that they haven't switched to another enzyme). Make a solution of one part meat tenderizer to 4 parts water and apply it to the site. If you leave it on too long it can irritate the skin, so be sure to remove it in 30 minutes OR LESS. This enzyme also works on bee and jellyfish stings.
-APPLY COOL WATER for 10-30 minutes after being stung. It helps soothe the area and reduce the swelling (caused by histamine the body produces in reaction to the venom). Some experts recommend against placing ice directly on skin because it can damage cells, but that's up to you. When I got stung, ice felt real good.
-TAKING AN ANTIHISTAMINE (like Benadryl) can further reduce the body's reaction and inhibit swelling.
-Ibuprofen (Advil) or Acetaminophen (Tylenol) might help with the pain.
-Contact a doctor IMMEDIATELY if you are stung in the mouth or throat (as swelling there can make it hard to breathe) OR if you have symptoms of a severe allergic reaction: difficulty breathing, dizziness, fainting, vomiting, hives, a widespread rash or swelling elsewhere on the body
Also known as the "hover fly," the syrphid fly is a beneficial insect that looks a lot like a small yellow jacket when in flight. It has a black and yellow striped body and tends to come out in the late summer and early fall. The adults are pollinators and the caterpillars eat aphids and other pests. Try not to kill them when you are hunting yellow jackets.
For More Information
on Spectracide Wasp & Hornet Killer
call 1-800-917-5438 or visit: www.spectracide.com
on Rescue Yellow Jacket Traps
on yellow jackets:
on beneficial insects:
on treating stings:
on some BIG nests in Alabama:
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