Minnesota Outdoors: Yellowjackets – Beautiful insect, unfair reputation

Blane Klemek

A few days ago my seven year-old grandson Lincoln and I were exploring in the backyard and adjacent woodland trails. Mushroom hunting, one of his favorite things to do, was cut short due to the drought, so that activity was out. Picking flowers wasn’t much better, except for picking a couple of blooming waterlilies from Assawa Lake.

    In the backyard I found a chipmunk burrow. Stopping to point it out, I noticed something peculiar about the hole in the ground. Indeed, instead of the underground burrow being occupied by a mammal, a colony of yellowjackets had taken it over. One after another, sometimes multiple insects at a time, were streaming in and out of the entrance in machine-like motion. It was fascinating to watch.

Yellowjackets belong to the large order of insects, Hymenoptera. Other members of the order include wasps, ants, and bees.  Most everyone has had at least one painful experience with these insects, including yours truly.  Yellowjacket, also called wasps (although paper wasps look different), is just one of the many species from the order that will sting if provoked or are defending a nest or food source.

The yellowjacket is considered a social wasp and is differentiated from a bee by the absence of “setae” or hair.  Further differences include the absence of pollen sacs on their hind legs, something worker honeybees possess (those balls of green or yellow pollen).  Worker yellowjackets, the wasp we normally observe—as opposed to queens and drones of the species—are also leaner looking than bees and are colored with alternating bands of yellow and/or black on the abdomen.

In the animal world, yellow and black markings are the universally understood combination of colors that communicate, “Stay away!”  And for the most part this easily observable message is well heeded.  For some creatures, however, such as black bears, which frequently dig up underground yellowjacket nests to devour the protein-rich larvae, neither the insects’ color nor painful stings matter.  In these cases the importance of nutritious food far outweighs the dozens of stings their snouts and paws endure.

Though hard to believe for some people, yellowjackets are very beneficial insects to have around.  While preferring natural foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates such as wild fruits, plant juices, and nectar, in addition to consuming insect-pests that are harmful to garden vegetables and orchard fruits, late summer and autumn is also a time when yellowjackets, as their diet changes, find themselves in frequent conflict with us.

Anyone sipping on a soft drink, for example, or having a picnic or filling up a hummingbird feeder with sweet sugar-water during these times of year, will undoubtedly have unwanted encounters with yellowjackets.  These insects are as unyielding as they come when satiating the needs of their colonies.

This can be extremely frustrating, and sometimes torturous if a possessive yellowjacket decides to sting.  Unlike honeybees that are equipped with barbed stingers that detach from their abdomens after use and thus can be used only once (ultimately killing the insect), yellowjackets can sting multiple times with their smooth stingers that remain attached to their bodies—another not-so-comforting difference between wasps and bees.

Even so, certain precautions should be considered when working or playing around sites known to harbor yellowjackets.  Be careful where you walk in the woods and be mindful where your feet are placed when walking through dense vegetation and woody undergrowth. I once stood unbeknownst on top of the entrance to an underground yellowjacket nest in a forest, but not for long mind you! And never leave a sweet drink unattended in the late summer, or if you do, be sure to check inside the can, bottle, or glass to make sure a yellowjacket isn’t inside, too.

Yellowjackets are beautiful insects with an unfair reputation.  And while many of us don’t enjoy trying to keep them from hummingbird and oriole feeders this time of year, yellowjackets are truly a part of the incredible diversity that Nature provides, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane likes to hear your feedback and your stories from Minnesota's outdoors. Reach him at bklemek@yahoo.com.