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Avoiding misadventures with yellow jackets

“For there is a price ticket on everything that puts a whizz into life, and adventure follows the rule. It’s distressing, but there you are.”

— Leslie Charteris on his crime series, “The Saint,” 1928-1983

If you enjoy reading paperbacks, then you can thank UK publishers Hodder and Stoughton for producing the Yellow Jacket book series beginning in the early 1920s. The series was a forerunner to the first paperback novels that emerged during the Depression.

With bright yellow paper jackets and appealing cover illustrations, Yellow Jackets were inexpensive reprints of bestselling adventures, mysteries and westerns. Among the most popular of the Yellow Jacket series were first editions of Leslie Charteris’s long-running crime thrillers, known as “The Saint” series, which have been adapted numerous times for film, radio and television.

Although Yellow Jackets of the published kind were beloved by scores of readers and are collectible items today, yellow jackets of the whizzing insect kind have never been popular, and adventurous collectors put themselves at risk of painful stings.

Such was the case recently when we hired a couple of men to clear out our pasture, and one of them was stung four times by an angry yellow jacket whose nest he had inadvertently disturbed. The yellow jackets had made their home in the ground beneath a fallen tree branch, and they certainly made their displeasure over having the limb removed known to the unfortunate guy who, luckily, was not allergic to the stings.

Come to find out, yellow jackets are most aggressive in late summer and early fall. They become hyper-defensive about the colony’s nest where the current queen presides and next year’s queen is developing. The yellow jackets are also stressed because flower nectar, an important natural food source, is dwindling just when the developing queen needs more sugary food in order to overwinter and start a new generation of yellow jackets next year.

I am a gardener who plants to attract pollinators, and I respect beneficial insects of all kinds, even those that sting. However, the yellow jacket nest in our pasture and another nest we found next to the barn have to go. But before grabbing the biggest can of insecticide I can find, I did a little research, and here’s what I found:

Yellow jackets (Vespula spp.) are in the wasp family. The queen is about 3/4-inch long. Females have stingers attached to their abdomen, and they are capable of stinging several times. Unlike bees, yellow jackets don’t die after stinging.

In spring, the queen yellow jacket emerges from hibernation and selects a nesting site for the colony. Most yellow jackets build their nests in the ground where rodents have dug holes, although some species prefer to nest in trees or other places above ground.

The queen lays 25-40 eggs to begin the colony with sterile female workers who build the nest from chewed wood pulp and saliva. The queen continues to lay eggs through the middle of summer, and males emerge in late summer to begin mating. By fall, a colony of yellow jackets can number in the thousands.

At first, workers focus on capturing prey with their powerful jaws and feeding it to the larvae. At this carnivorous stage, they are helpful garden insects because they feed on the same insects and caterpillars that are eating our tender plant shoots. Later in the summer, however, their dietary needs shift from protein to sugar. They use their tongue to feed on flower nectar and fruit juices, and when these sources decline they show little fear of coming after any food or drink that people may bring outside.

Cold weather kills all the yellow jackets except for the new queen, which leaves the nest to find shelter during the winter. In spring, the cycle begins all over again.

Knowing all this, I have decided to wait until winter kills the colonies and then seal up the nesting holes. A recommended non-toxic method of killing yellow jacket colonies is to combine a 50/50 solution of peppermint liquid Castile soap with boiling water, wait until evening when the yellow jackets have retired to the nest, put on protective clothing, pour the solution into the nest, and vacate the premises as quickly as possible. More than one application may be necessary to eradicate the entire colony.

I don’t enjoy killing insects that provide benefits to my garden. As Leslie Charteris said, “It’s distressing, but there you are.” Having yellow jackets in my pasture and barn is one adventure series I must do without.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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