Don’t blame the bees!!
As insects and other food sources become scarce in the fall, you may notice more aggressive yellow jackets while you enjoy your lunch outside. (Photo Courtesy of Lake Erie Nature & Science Center)
Guest columnist Christine Barnett is the wildlife specialist and resident beekeeper at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center.
Every fall, our outdoor hangouts are interrupted by black-and-yellow insects. Bees are often mistakenly blamed, when it’s really yellow jackets that are ruining the fun. Despite their many similarities, bees and yellow jackets are completely different insects.
Let’s start with their diets. Bees eat a plant-based diet, feeding on nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, consume insect protein in addition to fruits, sugars and other foods. As insects and other food sources become scarce in the fall, you may notice more aggressive yellow jackets while you enjoy your lunch outside.
The physical characteristics of bees and yellow jackets are quite different, too. Yellow jackets are more aggressive than bees when protecting their colonies. In fact, most people who say they have been stung by a bee were actually stung by a yellow jacket or other wasp.
Unlike honey bees, who lose their barbed stingers when they sting, yellow jackets’ stingers are smoother and less likely to get caught in your skin. The venom of yellow jackets is also more potent and painful.
While yellow jackets are seen throughout summer, they become a bigger pest in the fall due to their life cycle. In spring, a young queen will emerge from her overwintering den in a rotten log or other small space to build a new colony. She will choose a nesting site that is warm and dry, such as an old rodent den, sometimes underground, under old leaf piles or even in a crack in your home’s siding.
She will lay a few eggs and care for them by killing and bringing back other insects for the young to eat. Once the larvae grow into adult workers, the queen will remain in the nest laying eggs while her adult children scavenge food for the new babies. The colony will continue to grow all summer and by fall can have 1,000 to 3,000 or more workers living inside.
With a higher population of yellow jackets in the colony, the colony itself needs more food, resulting in more desperate and aggressive yellow jacket workers.
In the fall, the queen will lay eggs that will eventually become male yellow jackets and next year’s young queens. The males and new queens will emerge and mate with yellow jackets from different colonies.
After mating, the young queen will find a den to overwinter alone. As temperatures drop, the more food and energy is needed to survive, further increasing the other yellow jackets’ aggression.
Once the temperature drops too low, the remaining workers and males will die and the colony will not survive the winter.
So, if yellow jackets become a problem for you this fall, know that cooler temperatures are on the way.
Questions about bees, wasps or other wildlife? Contact wildlife specialist and resident beekeeper Christine Barnett at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center by calling 440-871-2900 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.