I’m not someone who delights in killing pests, and I don’t often advocate for their demise. In fact, I usually do my best to avoid killing them (for example, if an indoor spider gets too close for comfort, I usually capture it in a jar and release it outside). Last summer, however, I had to make an exception to my live-and-let-live policy, when I noticed that yellow jackets had built an active nest right next to the front door of our house.
It was an underground nest in a flower bed along a pathway. There were so many yellow jackets coming and going from the nest throughout the day that we couldn’t keep our front door open for very long, and I worried that our dog would inadvertently step on the entry to the nest and get swarmed and attacked. Furthermore, I learned that yellow jackets sometimes raid honeybee hives to steal their honey, and they have been known to kill honeybees in the process. This is a sufficiently good reason to get rid of the jackets, in my opinion. Some of our neighbors have honeybee hives, so it felt like killing these yellow jackets was a just and neighborly thing to do.
(Honeybees are suffering from a Colony Collapse Disorder. Note: If you have a problem with a swarm, nest, or hive, check out online photos of bees, yellow jackets, hornets, etc. to make sure you know which of these you’re dealing with. Honeybees and other pollinators are extremely important, and they almost never sting; please don’t kill them.)
I didn’t want to use toxic insecticides, which could kill the flowers in our garden and poison our dog and the honeybees, along with the soil and groundwater around our house. So, thinking we were being clever, my husband and I tried putting the garden hose down the nest entry hole and flushing the nest out with water. This scheme did not work. We tried it a few evenings in a row, and the tenacious buggers would shoot out of the nest alive (seemingly unfazed by the water) and quickly rebuild a new entry hole. One evening, they went into attack mode and my husband got stung. They won these battles, but we were determined to outsmart them and win the war — without resorting to the use of Raid, professional chemical insecticides, gasoline, or any of the other toxic and hazardous substances that are commonly suggested.
So I started researching non-toxic solutions. Through my online reading, I learned that mint oil can kill almost any insect, and that yellow jackets also don’t like soapy or boiling water… We happened to have a quart-size container of Dr. Bronner’s “magic” organic peppermint castile liquid soap in the house. The bottle was only half full, so we filled the rest of it up with water to make it a 50% diluted quart. Then we waited ‘til it was almost dark outside (this is the only time you should ever deal with yellow jackets, as they’re all inside the nest and inactive at night). We poured the quart down the nest’s entry hole (it’s best to do this with an extension device, like a hose or a gas can or watering can, to keep your body further from the nest opening — and you should also wear protective clothing). We immediately followed that up by pouring in a kettle full of boiling hot water, which washed the mint oil further down into the nest. We didn’t see a single yellow jacket emerge from the nest that night, and we haven’t seen any around here since. It worked!
1/2 quart (2 cups) Dr. Bronner’s organic peppermint castile soap, diluted with
1/2 quart (2 cups) water [poured into the nest via a hose or watering can with a long nozzle]
Followed by 1 tea-kettle full (approx. 1 quart or 4 cups) of boiling water
Bear in mind that it’s possible that boiling soapy water would work on its own, without adding any mint oil. Likewise, mint oil might work without using boiling water. I haven't tried it that way, so I’m not sure. If you’re worried about killing plants or flowers around the nest, you might want to try a highly-diluted mint oil solution and forego the use of boiling water.
Also note that, while this solution worked for this ground nest, it would not be appropriate for some other situations, e.g., when you don’t know where the nest is, or when the nest is in the walls of your house. For those types of situations, try using Rescue traps (or a homemade soda-bottle equivalent) instead; these work by using a non-toxic syrup (sugar-water) bait, but you can also use a meat bait late in the season. I’ve tried the traps; they work on yellow jackets, and as advertised, they do not seem to attract or kill honeybees!
Dr. Bronner’s entertaining, pontificating text-filled label (I recommend reading all of the fine print if you haven’t before) states that the soap is good for 18 different uses: from washing pets and babies to washing dentures and cars. Yellow jacket / insect eradication isn’t one of the listed uses, but it seems that it should be. I’m planning to experiment with using the stuff to repel mosquitoes, get rid of ants, and keep fleas and other bugs off of the dog.
I’d like to hear about other people’s experiences. Have you had good luck using mint oil soap for pest repellent or for any other purposes? And have you found other solutions for ridding your yard of yellow jackets without using poisons?
P.S. Check out the Dr. Bronner company’s good work on social and environmental issues (e.g., fair trade, truly organic ingredients, profit-sharing and good benefits for employees, charitable donations, etc.). And if you’re curious about the eccentric Dr. Bronner’s life, rent the fascinating documentary Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox.
Miriam Landman is an accomplished writer, editor, and sustainability advisor with expertise in green living, green building, and sustainable communities. For daily links to sustainable solutions and success stories, connect to her Facebook page for The Green Spotlight.
Yellow jacket image (above) taken by D. Griebeling