We’ve been lied to yet again, everybody. Yellow jackets are not bees. They are wasps. They’re wannabe-bees. Wannabebees? Wannabees.
And they don’t wear jackets, either. Maybe it’s a metaphor for how they’re wasps in bees’ clothing.
You’re all probably expecting me to tell you a story about how I got stung by a yellow jacket in my childhood. You’re probably expecting me to tell you how I was stung by three or four yellow jackets on a hiking trail one time because I stepped down into a swarm of them in front of a log before realizing what they were. You’re probably expecting me to tell you about how my dad had to carry me back to the car because the yellow jackets stung my ankle and that when we were driving down the road Dad asked a motorcycle gang if they had any chewing tobacco I could put on my leg. You’re probably expecting me to tell you how appalled I was by this proposition since tobacco is bad but they didn’t have any anyway so we had to drive to a gas station where my parents put baking soda on my leg instead. Then you’d expect me to talk about how my parents stopped by a store on our way back from the gas station but I couldn’t go into the store because my ankle was covered in baking soda so I sat in the car with the dog with my leg propped up and some random people walked up to the car to see the dog and were surprised to see me too and then it was just me and two strangers and my dog talking in a parking lot with my ankle propped up on the seat in front of me caked in baking soda.
Well, prepare to be disappointed: those weren’t yellow jackets, those were just regular wasps of an unknown species that day. I’ve actually never been stung by a yellow jacket, and I’m not planning on it. Moral of the story: the ArthroBlogger is a goofball, baking soda works wonders for bee and wasp stings, and tobacco is bad. Unless you put it on your leg to soothe wounds, that’s actually okay apparently, but ask an adult to help you out with that one.
Even though I haven’t been stung, I’ve definitely had my fair share of close encounters with yellow jackets over the years. The charter school I went to from second to eighth grade went through bouts of yellow jacket infestations in the spring, during which pouches of yellow-jacket-killing liquid (I believe they looked like this) would appear overnight hanging from the playground shelters. The arrival of the pouches marked the beginning of yellow jacket season, during which my friends and I would inevitably spend at least five cumulative minutes out of every recess screaming and running away from the wannabees and their true-bee friends. They say you’re supposed to sit still and not make sudden movements around flying, stinging insects, but neither I nor any of my friends ever got stung retreating, so I guess both methods work if you run fast enough?
That’s bad advice, kids. Don’t bother yellow jackets, and they shouldn’t bother you. Shouldn’t. Running isn’t a bad second option.
Although I really shouldn’t say that, either – even as a last resort, sometimes running is futile. Yellow jackets are extremely territorial and will pursue anyone who attacks their nest. They’ll even follow you to water and wait for you to resurface if you dive under to escape them. If you think fire ants get angry when you mess with their homes, you haven’t met yellow jackets. Even once you get stung, you’re not safe – unlike bees, yellow jackets can sting you again and again without dying. You may be thinking to yourself, “well I guess I’m going to steer clear of any yellow jacket nests I see, then,” but the problem is you may not see them. Some yellow jackets build their nests in the ground, so you may accidentally stir them up with your lawnmower or step in their burrow just walking across your yard.
I know I’ve just instilled a yellow jacket paranoia in all of you now, but hear me out: despite their terrifying tempers, yellow jackets aren’t all bad. Not only do they pollinate plants like other wasps and bees, but they’re voracious predators that prey upon common garden pests that we like even less than yellow jackets. Like the other stinging insects in more ways than one, yellow jackets are also incredible architects who design impressive nests both under and above ground. The brown, papery nests of yellow jackets hanging in trees or under park shelters are kind of hard to miss, so at least we can thank these wasps for letting us know where they are – unlike their sneaky underground brethren. Thanks for nothing, guys. It’s not like we’re trying to step on your houses, just give us a warning that you’re down there!
The best advice I can give you is to watch out for holes in the ground. Steering clear of random holes in the ground is always a good option, no matter what animal it is, especially because some yellow jacket nests are built out of unoccupied rodent holes.
Another way yellow jackets mimic the ants and the bees is through their socially advanced colonies. Whether guarding the nest, foraging for food, or tending to the queen and larvae, each individual yellow jacket has an important role to play for the hive. The queen herself will only retire to a life of egg laying after taking on all these roles alone to create her colony in the first place.
Yellow jackets have more skills than just housebuilding and housekeeping, too: since these wasps have specific tastes for meaty and sugary foods, they learn to identify places that are more likely to have their desired sustenance, and even when said sustenance typically arrives. Reminds me of how I know what time my favorite fast food restaurant opens and what to order when I get there.
Yellow jackets may be terrifying, but for their plethora of skills and contribution to the garden ecosystem, they are certainly worthy of admiration. From a distance. In a bee suit. They may be talented, but they certainly aren’t friendly.