Updated: Jun 13, 2021
Photo credit: Adobe Stock It’s yellow jacket season, and we don’t mean Georgia Tech football! Tech’s stinging mascot has a well-deserved bad reputation, and in early fall aggressive yellow jacket behavior (of the insect variety) reaches its peak.
Often confused with honeybees or bumblebees, yellow jackets are ground-dwelling wasps. Their quick-to-sting tendency gives many beneficial bees an undeserved bad rap. Wasps and bees, while related, are very different and fulfill different, but equally important, roles in the ecosystem. Wasps evolved as predators, eating other insects for protein. Many of the insects they prey upon are pests, so yellow jackets actually help keep some unwanted insect populations in check. Bees, on the other hand, evolved to consume pollen for protein, spreading some of that pollen from flower to flower as they forage (thus becoming what we call pollinators). Because of this dietary difference, wasps lack the abundant hair needed for collecting pollen that evolved on bees. So, while bees are fuzzy, wasps have a hard, shell-like appearance. Both wasps and bees also feed on sugary flower nectar. As flower visitors, wasps do provide some pollination benefit to some species of plants (notably fig trees), but as predators, it is not their primary function in the ecosystem.
Yellow jackets are cavity nesters and usually (though not always) live underground, where they construct paper combs in which to raise their young. Yellow jackets are notoriously defensive of their nesting sites. Colonies can grow to several thousand individuals and each can sting repeatedly and do not leave a stinger. Yellow jackets often go unnoticed through spring and summer. Often the first awareness of their presence in the environment comes via a painful sting delivered in the fall when you stray too near their nest site.
As the days shorten and the weather turns colder, the yellow jacket queen will stop laying new eggs. Without developing brood to feed and care for, the yellow jacket population no longer needs to hunt prey and begins to subsist solely on sugary nectar. With fewer and fewer plants available in the fall, they often go after sugary soda containers in trash cans (or at your football tailgate!).
With the first frost, the yellow jacket colony will die. However, yellow jacket queens over-winter in the ground or leaf litter in a state of diapause, waiting for spring before they re-emerge to start a new colony.
Know the difference.
Yellow jackets are bright yellow and black, colors designed to convey a warning: danger. Honey bees are brown/tan and golden in color and hairy. Most other types of bees can be distinguished from wasps by their hair. Hair = bee. No hair = wasp. Beekeepers are interested in helping you with problem honey bees. Generally speaking, beekeepers will not be interested in helping you with problem yellow jackets.