About Yellow Jackets and the Benefits of Wasps in the Garden

Yellow jacket wasps feed their young liquefied insects, with caterpillars, flies and spiders comprising the largest food groups during most of the summer. The effect: Adios, garden pests!
By Barbara Pleasant
March 18, 2013
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Simply allowing selected nests to remain in place is all you must do to receive free pest control services from yellow jackets.
Illustration By Keith Ward


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This article is part of our Organic Pest Control Series, which includes articles on attracting beneficial insects, controlling specific garden pests, and using organic pesticides.     

The Yellow Jacket Wasp (Vespidae

Yellow jacket wasps make irritating company at summer picnics, but they are extremely welcome visitors in the garden. These bright yellow-and-black striped wasps are slick and slender compared with honeybees, and are more likely to be found hunting among foliage than visiting flowers during the first half of summer. The food demands of growing yellow jacket colonies are so great that it has been estimated that more than 2 pounds of insects may be removed from a 2,000-square-foot garden by yellow jackets.

The benefits of yellow jackets come at a cost, because yellow jackets become dangerously aggressive when their nest is threatened. Nests are easiest to locate on warm summer mornings or evenings by carefully scanning the landscape for insects shooting up out of the ground. After you have located yellow jacket nests, decide whether they will stay or go. To neutralize a nest without using pesticides, cover the entry hole with a large translucent bowl or other cover, held in place with a brick. Be sure to approach yellow jacket nests at night, when the yellow jackets are at rest. Use flags or other markers to mark the locations of nests in acceptable places. Yellow jackets typically build new nests each year. Sometimes new yellow jacket nests appear in midsummer after old ones are damaged by foxes or other predators.

What Do Yellow Jackets Eat? 

Yellow jackets wasps feed their young liquefied insects, with caterpillars, flies and spiders comprising the largest food groups in the yellow jacket diet during most of the summer. In late summer, yellow jackets start looking for flower nectar and other sources of sugar, which are necessary nutrients for the next season’s queens. Meanwhile, fewer young are being raised in the nests, which leaves many individuals with little to do. At this point yellow jackets become an obnoxious presence outdoors, whether they are trying to steal your sandwich or swarming over apple cores in your compost.   

How to Attract Yellow Jacket Wasps to Your Garden  

Simply allowing selected nests to remain in place is all you must do to receive free pest control service from yellow jackets. Coexisting peacefully with yellow jackets is another issue, especially if you grow tree fruits. Yellow jackets eagerly feed on fallen apples, pears and other fruits, so wear a light glove when cleaning up the orchard. Bury fruit waste beneath 2 inches of soil, or establish a fruit waste compost pile far from your house, where the yellow jackets can eat their fill.

You can use passive traps made from soda bottles to trap yellow jackets lurking on your deck or patio starting in early fall, should they be a problem. Most of these individuals will die of natural causes before the beginning of winter, so you have little to lose by trapping them. 

More information about yellow jacket wasps is available from Auburn University, North Carolina State University, and Michigan State University.


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JIMA
9/18/2014 11:12:16 PM
was out mowing some grass at the edges of the lawn when -- ouch! -- and dam*! -- i found that 4th Yellow Jacket nest. I moved away from the mower fairly quickly, and 6 stings later, i was both a ways away from the upset wasps, and finally free of them. I had left a running mower -- so-- how to safely get the mower away from there and turned off?? Here's what i did: i took a 50' light tow rope and made a double hook grapple from wires from political signs -- a handy source of project wire. Anyway --- you know of those dangers to great to touch with a 20 foot pole? Well, i have a 23' pole. I tied the rope to the home-made grapple, carefully placed it over the mower handle with the 23 foot pole, pulled the rope tight and pulled the mower out of there, chased off the rest of the yellow jackets without anymore stings Then tonite, i poured about half a cup of old gas/oil into their hole and put a wide mouth jar over the hole. I'll leave it there for a week at least. That small amount of dirty gas is still enough to wipe out the nest in the short run, and with a couple months, bacteria will have digested most of the rest. I follow what i have learned as the Zen Path Between. This says there is a place for nature and a human place where i choose which nature to permit. Like: no wasp nests within 10 feet of where people walk or do things. It's a safety issue. Right now , it is mid September of 2014. This is the time of the year -- like the article above talks about -- when the next year's queens are on their way and the whole nest is hyper defensive. This is true for all social Hymenops, and Yellow Jackets just happen to be the nastiest of the bunch -- with good reason: skunks and foxes can and will dig them out for a great meal of fat wasp larvae. Two of our 4 nests were dug out by a fox, from the size of the hole. I've lived on a farm for good part of my life, and i'm used to Yellow Jackets and other wasps. And i'm also very aware of where they fit into the food web. This year, with 4 nests, we had 3 to 5 Yellow Jackets per square yard all over our yard, I've been stung half a dozen times just walking barefoot. It is also the first year we have had very few butterflies. I thought it might be climate related until i started seeing so many Yellow Jackets. The two paper wasps also catch caterpillars. And there were few nests of these. When i can choose, my druthers are to support these two species since they are less aggressive than Yellow Jackets. I'm happy with Yellow Jackets in the area, but NOT in our central-use area

Gardener
6/21/2013 3:40:46 PM

I'm not particularly fond of ground dwelling yellowjackets. They have a habit of attacking en mass. The small paper-nest-building yellowjackets in the eaves of outbuildings are allowed to stay.

Much more companiable though are the actual paper wasps. They don't seem to mind being brushed out of the way, and being much slower fliers, don't tend to do fly-by stings if you happen to get in their way. I enjoy watching them forage in the garden, they are extremely efficient at eating about 95% of the cole crop worms. I lure both insects to the garden with posts of untreated wood that have aged to a gray patina. They chew off the top gray layer to make their paper nests.


Gardener
6/21/2013 3:39:16 PM

I'm not particularly fond of ground dwelling yellowjackets. They have a habit of attacking en mass. The small paper-nest-building yellowjackets in the eaves of outbuildings are allowed to stay.

Much more companiable though are the actual paper wasps. They don't seem to mind being brushed out of the way, and being much slower fliers, don't tend to do fly-by stings if you happen to get in their way. I enjoy watching them forage in the garden, they are extremely efficient at eating about 95% of the cole crop worms. I lure both insects to the garden with posts of untreated wood that have aged to a gray patina. They chew off the top gray layer to make their paper nests.


SAMATHA BURNS
3/21/2013 11:57:56 AM
I am so glad to see this article! As president of the Somerset Beekeepers here in Maine I do a lot of public presentations about native bees and pollinators. Most people have an innate fear of bees, but particularly of wasps and yellow jackets. I like to explain to them how beneficial these insects are for their gardens and yards, how they feed their babies other insects and feed on nectar themselves, increasing pollination and reducing the numbers of unwanted "dinner-guests" in our gardens. If we can practice peaceful coexistence it may make all the difference.








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