YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Let us start by explaining we have no idea why there are holes drilled in the cinderblocks of our shed. Our best guess is it’s some unfinished project of the previous owners.
Over the years the holes (or should we say the space beyond the holes) have been home to a variety of insects; bees, wasps, and even European hornets, which are the only true hornets in the United States. All of them have proven to be good neighbors, though the hornets did have a disconcerting habit of buzzing right past your ear on their way to the hole.
This year we have yellowjackets.
Yellowjackets, or yellow jackets, are social wasps of the Family Vespidae. The most common species in the eastern United States are the Eastern yellowjacket, Vespula maculifrons; the Common yellowjacket, Vespula vulgaris, and the aerial yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaris. There’s also the German yellowjacket, Vespula germanica, an invasive species which arrived in the 1970s and has been expanding its range. Good luck figuring out which species is which.
They do have the potential to be dangerous. Unlike bees, which lose their stingers when they sting, yellowjackets can sting repeatedly. Most deaths from stings in the US are from yellowjackets, either from a massive number of stings (1,500 and up for a grown man) or from an allergic reaction (one sting will do.) And yet, as this video shows, they can be pretty laid back about having humans in their vicinity. (Many of the shots were taken less than a foot from the hole.)
Yellowjackets can be both predators and scavengers. As predators, they can be very beneficial by preying on “pest insects” which can damage crops or spread disease. (Of course, they might also end up preying on “beneficial insects”, but we can’t hold it against them for not knowing the difference.)
As scavengers yellowjackets seek out water sources, protein, and sweets. This is when they start crashing the family picnic, checking out one end of that hot dog you just bit into on the other end, and investigating the inside of your can of soda. Experts recommend keeping food covered as much as possible, using cups with lids and straws, and cleaning up quickly when you’re done eating.
(There are other approaches; one time my wife and I were having lunch out on the porch, and a yellowjacket initiated an investigation. My wife actually negotiated a détente. She put a little plate of sugar water and a small piece of lunch meat on one end of the table, we sat at the other end and ate in peace while watching the yellowjacket carefully scissor off bits of meat with her mandibles and carry it off to its nest. It was really quite fascinating to watch.)
We’re now getting into that time of year when yellowjackets tend to get a bit pushy and overbearing. The weather gets colder (sooner or later) and their food sources dry up. So, they’re that much more likely to show up at outdoor events to claim some of the provender, and that much more likely to be aggressive about guarding what they find.
So far, though, things with our colony continue as they have all summer; we don’t bother them, they don’t bother us, and everybody has a good time. Maybe I’ll post an update later this year.