Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Gardening in the summer cannot always be a bed of roses, especially if there are bees on those roses. Bees are actually good in the garden though, especially for pollination, and are seldom a bother unless really provoked. Often confused with bees are yellowjackets, which pose a much more serious threat.
Yellowjackets are not even in the same family as bees, being
instead a type of wasp in the Vespid family, similar to related
wasps and hornets. Without barbs on their stingers as bees have,
yellowjackets can repeatedly sting their victims. They are most
active in late summer when their colonies reach their peak, and
they need higher levels of protein-rich or sugary foods.
A yellowjacket colony consists of the queen, female workers
(which are what you may encounter), and the males which appear in
late summer. Only the females that have mated with the males will
overwinter to produce next yearís eggs and future offspring.
You can identify yellowjackets by their alternating black and
yellow markings on their body segments, and their smaller size
than many bees. Unlike bees, these wasps donít have as much body
hair or the expanded hind leg (both used for bees to transport
pollen), and have a rounded abdomen. Their waist is thinner than
that of bees, and their elongated wings are as long as their
Before you reach for the poison baits and spray can, consider
some less toxic means to reduce encounters with these pests. Your
goal should not be to eliminate them from the entire area, as they
too have their use in suppressing a wide variety of pest insects.
Yellowjackets donít just scavenge on items such as around
trashómeat, fish, and sugary productsóbut eat flies, beetle grubs,
and other pests that we donít want.
Get rid of their most important human source of food, garbage,
and you'll go far towards getting rid of them. Keep garbage
covered, and dispose of it frequently. Also rake up and dispose
of fruit drops whose sugar attracts them.
You also can use food to trap them. Make traps of one-liter size
soft drink bottles. Bait these with left over soda, cat food,
ham, tuna, or over ripe fruit. Then place at the farthest corners
of your property.
While they donít go out of their way to sting, they are quick to
defend their homes. If you get stung, you may have cornered or
surprised a yellowjacket, or gotten too near their colony.
Although yellowjackets make paper nests similar to other wasps,
they usually build these nests underground. Watch for underground
nest openings they may be entering and leaving. Nesting colonies
also may be found in building cavities, under porches and steps,
in bushes, or at the base of trees. If you notice them flying
about your garden, use caution when weeding! Using the proper
precautions, you can spray ground openings or nests in evening,
and again in morning. Use a wasp and hornet spray that reaches 20
feet, and leave immediately upon spraying.
While working in the garden you can protect yourself from stings
with a few simple measures. Avoid wearing brightly colored and
patterned clothes. Avoid wearing perfumes and other scents such
as from deodorants, scented hairspray, or from suntan lotion.
Maintaining your composure around yellowjackets, or if they land
on you, also can help prevent stings. Move slowly and keep calm.
Swatting or other fast movement can agitate them, provoking stings
and even bites. Yes, they can even bite! Slowly brush them off,
or waiting until they fly off on their own, is better than hitting
or constraining them. Squashing a yellowjacket also releases a
chemical alarm that signals others to the area to attack!
In spite of all these precautions, if you do get stung, here is
what to do. This assumes you are not hypersensitive to bee and
wasp venom, in which case you should have emergency medicines with
--Examine the site of the sting to see if it is from a bee or yellowjacket. If from a bee, the stinger will still be there. Scrape it out with a side-to-side motion.
--Wash the wound with soap and water to remove some of the venom.
--Treat the wound with ice, meat tenderizer (which contains enzymes that destroy proteins in the venom), or anti-histamines (to reduce symptoms such as pain and swelling).
--Rest and don't drink alcohol.
--Seek medical attention if the sting is to the mouth or throat, as swelling there could obstruct breathing.