This past week I decided that it was a good time to wash the vinyl siding on my home. While removing the shutters, I came face to face with a somewhat angry wasp.
Of course, she was doing what mom’s do guarding and protecting her young. Lucky for me, I was not stung. After dispatching this young colony of wasps, I thought, why was the nest there in the first place?
So, with the research help of Joe Boggs, Ohio State University Extension educator in Hamilton County, I came across some very interesting information that I would like to share.
Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are considered beneficial insects. What I found interesting is the bald face hornet and the yellow jackets are closely related. So closely related that they are both classified together as yellow jackets. Ironically taxonomically speaking, North America never had a “true hornet” until the European hornet was introduced some years ago, but that is another story. The other wasp is known as a paper wasp.
All species of yellow jackets in Ohio build circular to oblong “closed” paper nests. An outer paper envelope encloses multi-tiered paper “combs” that house the immature yellow jackets (larvae).
The common yellow jackets build nests underground or occasionally in hollow trees, rock crevices, or crevices in buildings. The bald-faced hornets (yellow jackets) build exposed nests in trees, shrubs or on buildings.
Our native paper wasps is the wasp that I encountered. They construct exposed paper nests with the larval chambers clearly visible. Our native paper wasps tend to position their nests in a protected location such as under the eaves of buildings or occasionally inside buildings such as in attics.
The cousin of the European paper wasps presents a dangerous exception. They may be found nesting in shrubbery where they are painfully discovered during pruning or hedge trimming.
Yellow jackets and paper wasps are important beneficial insects owing to their need to provide protein to their legless, helpless larvae in their nests.
From late-spring through the summer, the ever-expanding numbers of yellow jacket and paper wasp sterile female workers keep busy enlarging their nests and foraging for caterpillars, sawfly larvae, and other soft-bodied insects.
They use their powerful mandibles to grind-up these protein-rich meat items to feed to their larvae so they will development into new adults. Paper wasps also provide the added benefit of being important plant pollinators. They will visit flowers to feed on energy-rich nectar to support their predatory foraging and wood fiber gathering flights.
Unfortunately, yellow jackets have a deserving reputation for becoming a serious nuisance late in the season.
Sometime in late summer to early fall, drones (males) and new queens begin to develop in the nests. These new sexually reproductive yellow jackets need energy from carbohydrates, so they lounge around the nest begging the workers for sweets.
To appease these freeloaders, the workers search for foods that have this much needed energy boost such as soda, donuts, and funnel cakes — the all-American fine cuisine that I love to eat at county fairs. Thankfully for the over-worked workers, the nest populations of adults begin to peak in the fall with 5,000 or more workers in the colony.
As fall comes to an end, the new queens and drones leave their nest to mate, and the queens seek protected overwintering sites. The colony from which they developed dies during the winter; Yellow Jacket and Paper Wasp nests only last one season.
This means that you should avoid declaring war on these stinging insects unless their nests are located where they present a serious stinging hazard. The nests will eventually die-out on their own, with no fanfare for the poor overworked workers.
Of course, yellow jacket and paper wasp workers will happily demonstrate their stinging capabilities any time during the growing season. However, understanding why they sting is important to avoiding painful confrontations.
These insects will sting for two reasons: to defend their nests (and young) and to deliver venom to quickly subdue their prey. Fortunately, despite their belligerent reputations, paper wasps and yellow jackets, which of course includes Bald faced Hornets, are seldom aggressive.
What benefit would it be for them to waste energy chasing after people? Unless those people present a clear and present danger to their nests. The vast majority of painful encounters are associated with poorly planned and executed efforts to wage war on these beneficial insects. Indeed, even armed with serious insecticides, we are often woefully outclassed because they have been defending their nests for tens of thousands of years.