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Home Opinion Garrett: The year of the yellow jacket

Garrett: The year of the yellow jacket

If yellow jackets' numbers are a sign of a bad winter, we're in for a doozy

Nature is full of old wives’ predictions this time of year.

When hornets build their nests high (or when they build their nests low, depending on which old wife you’re talking to), it means the upcoming winter is going to be particularly rough. When the woolly worms have an extra stripe (or when they have no stripe), it also means winter is going to be rough. When the ants build their hills higher than normal, it means winter is going to be rough. When the squirrels’ tails are bushier, it means winter is going to be rough.

And so on and so forth.

I wonder what it means when there are more yellow jackets than normal? Like, a blue zillion of the Satan spawns, nesting in every underground cavity they can crawl into? 

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Ask anyone who mows lawns for a living and they’ll likely tell you the same thing I’m about to tell you: Yellow jackets are particularly bad this year.

A little back-story: Our yard is a magnet for yellow jackets. We typically have a couple of nests in the yard each summer. That’s notable because I know people who’ve gone their entire lives without finding a yellow jacket’s nest in their lawn. I’ve always chalked it up to the fact that we have multiple apple and pear trees and yellow jackets feast on carbs and sugar, making ripened fruits their smorgasbord during the late-summer months when their nests are maturing.

The fruit trees vs. yellow jackets nest correlation is just a casual observation, not a scientific finding. But the bottom line is that yellow jackets react viciously when their nest is threatened. And simply vibrating their nest can cause them to feel threatened, which means anyone who is unlucky enough to mow over a subterranean nest is going to have an experience he won’t soon forget. A yellow jacket may be roughly the size of a honey bee, but its sting is no honey bee sting. Unless you’re one of the rare people who are deathly allergic to bee stings, the honey bee’s sting is mild, and it’s also self-sacrificial; honey bees rip off their stinger when they sting, and die. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, do not have barbed stingers, which means they can sting you again and again, until you manage to get away. 

There’s nothing that will ruin a pleasant day of mowing grass in 90-degree heat and 99% humidity than a bunch of whizzed-off yellow jackets coming at you for having the audacity to mow a swath of grass over their nest. Besides being able to sting multiple times, yellow jackets have this adorable classification as a “social insect.” That means they’re wired to work together to defend their nest and their queen. And they release a pheromone that is basically a call to arms to all the other worker bees in the hive. It’s their way of trumpeting to all their hive-mates, “HEY! LET’S GO ATTACK THE SON OF A JACKAL WHO VIBRATED OUR COLONY!” And they come swarming out, instantaneously identifying whomever they perceive as a threat (which is whomever is nearest the nest). You can run, but you better be quick, because they’ll chase you. As for the old movie trick of jumping into the water to escape them? Good luck. Yellow jackets will hover over the water and wait for you resurface for fresh breath. 

Yellow jackets aren’t a threat early in the summer. They all die in the all, except a few queens who have been impregnated, which overwinter and begin the life cycle anew the following year. When the queen reemerges with warm weather in the spring, she finds a suitable place and begins building a nest. Then she lays a few eggs, and spends a few weeks feeding the larvae. 

That means that there aren’t many yellow jackets until around mid summer. By that time, the first larvae have matured into worker wasps and will begin the task of gathering food for the new larvae and expanding the nest, while the queen spends all her time in the nest, laying more eggs. While her first offspring are still larvae, the queen has the sole responsibility of defending the nest, which means that you can jump up and down on the ground outside the entrance without fearing retaliation. But as the nest matures, the worker bees take on the task of defending the nest, and they work together excellently. 

Here on the Cumberland Plateau, you can pretty much count on mowing without fear up until around the Independence Day holiday. But during the month of July, swarms of angry yellow jackets become an increasing risk, and that threat continues to grow through the months of August and September. By the time the nest reaches its peak at the end of summer, there are usually several thousand yellow jackets inside. 

Anyway. To give you an idea of how many yellow jackets nests I’ve encountered this year, I am averaging less than one sting per nest, and I was stung eight times by a single nest while mowing last week. One year I was amazed to find three yellow jackets nests in my lawn in the same summer. This year, I’ve encountered 10. And counting.

And my lawn isn’t huge; it’s barely an acre. To say that there are lots and lots of those hateful little yellow-and-black wasps around this year would be quite an understatement. 

So, do any of you old wives have an interpretation for what this means Ol’ Man Winter has in store for us? If lots of yellow jackets mean the same thing as hornets building their nests high in the tree, we’re in for a humdinger of a winter.

ν Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. 

Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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