By Wendy Tweten
Try Googling “wasps, hornets, yellow jackets.”
first half dozen offerings are all about death and destruction—of the insects,
that is. It’s a telling glimpse into the human psyche when you see that even
the topics of “terrorism” and “mass murder” aren’t dealt with as harshly.
Hmm…do wasps, even yellow jackets, really deserve all this fear and loathing?
Of course, the
phobia is all about the sting, but—as
anyone who spends a great deal of time outdoors can tell you—stinging is an
exceedingly rare occurrence. Yes, yellow jackets nesting in untended fields can
be downright disagreeable if stumbled upon. And I personally can confirm that
bumblebees really hate being scooped up in a flip-flop or squeezed in with a
handful of rhody trusses. However, most stinging insects live quite peaceably
alongside us, and grant us tremendous benefits in return.
These busy little creatures with the pointy
ends are a
vital part of our ecosystems—not to mention our economy. Honey bees, of course,
are small miracles that not only provide liquid gold for our pancakes, but are
directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of fruits, flowers, and
vegetables; commercially they pollinate about one third of the crop species in
the U.S. Other types of bees and some wasps are pollinators as well. Where many
wasps really shine is as predators of caterpillars, aphids and other garden
Reportedly, the record number of stings sustained by one
person—who lived to tell the tale—is 2,243, proving that bee stings are much
more of a pain than a danger for the 99 percent of us who do not suffer a
systemic reaction to bee venom. When a bee or wasp does sting, it’s almost
always for one of two reasons: to protect the hive or in response to direct
Aside from yellow jackets and Africanized “killer” bees
(the latter, thankfully, not found this far north), most bees and wasps of the
Pacific Northwest are quite tolerant of humans. I have seen this firsthand in
my own garden where bald-faced hornets, mud daubers and European paper wasps
routinely nest in the midst of human activity. The deal is this: one sting and
they’re out of there. So far, in twenty-five years, only the nest of yellow
jackets in the downspout had to be destroyed.
If a sting does occur, it doesn’t have to ruin
Here’s the secret: meat tenderizer. The enzyme in meat tenderizer breaks down
the protein in bee venom like magic, and it does the job fast. To relieve a
sting, apply a paste made of one part unseasoned tenderizer to four parts
water. Wash it off within 30 minutes to avoid irritation. Voila! Vamoose venom!
Yellow jackets give other wasps a bad name. They are the
big, bold, black and caution-sign-yellow fellows, beefier than the gentler
paper wasps, and smooth skinned, as opposed to the fuzzy, pale yellow honeybee.
Yellow jackets take great offense to our sudden appearance at their (usually)
underground nests. Late in the summer they also become picnic pests, though
they seem much more intent on dining than stinging, which makes the main worry
accidentally sipping one up with the soda. On the plus side, yellow jackets are
excellent predators of insect pests including the crane fly that infests our
Crunch, crunch. Tiny chewing sounds on a quiet
day may be the busy mandibles of a bald-faced hornet grinding wood fiber from
your cedar fence for use in her spectacular, potentially football-sized paper
home. If you are lucky enough to have such a nest constructed outside your
window you’ll be privileged to watch the girls spending the summer carrying
caterpillars home to feed the developing larvae.
Though they’re called hornets, these creatures
are in fact
a yellow jacket species, one of the social wasps in the family Vespidae. The only true hornet
in the U.S., the non-native European hornet, hasn’t yet found its way to
Washington and Oregon. Bald-faced hornets and other paper-making wasps deserve
a chance; experience has taught me they aren’t nearly as feisty as their
reputation suggests. Even the huge, active nest that appeared one summer a few
feet from our outdoor dining area never bothered anyone.
about those paper nests that look like the builder
forgot the walls? You’re probably looking at the work of the European paper
wasp, a recent immigrant to the west coast. Slighter and longer legged than a
yellow jacket, the paper wasp shares its cousin’s aposematic colors. Their nest
is a simple comb with a single layer of exposed cells. The paper wasps that
built their nest a foot above my head in my outdoor potting area were
surprisingly polite. A warning “bump”—not a sting—first alerted me to their
Too stubborn to abandon my potting shed, I limited my
time, moved slowly and kept a wary eye open, but they ignored me for the rest
of the season. Like all social wasps, they abandoned their nest in the fall,
never to return. The fertile queens found lots of hidey-holes in which they overwintered
until a warm March day brought them swarming out in search of new homes.
mud dauber takes wasp-waisted to the extreme with an
abdomen attached to the end of an impossibly long, narrow “stem.” Solitary
wasps, mud daubers are more closely related to bees than they are to social
wasps. Frequent visitors to puddles, they gather up mouthfuls of mud to
construct their small mud nests. The female then collects spiders which she
paralyzes and adds to the nest cells, creating a larder on which she will lay
her eggs—and making us once again glad we are not spiders.
Like all solitary wasps, mud daubers
are not aggressive
and won’t sting unless ill-treated. They are not the most graceful of fliers;
members of my local mud dauber population often careen into the humans, but the
collisions appear accidental and—if the humans keep their hands to
themselves—the wasps simply meander off.
What types of bees and wasps are to be found in
garden? More than just winged stingers, these small creatures come in a variety
of sizes, guises and habits. A little less running and screaming and a little
more quiet observation will prove that these intriguing insects deserve
respect, not fear.
When we think in terms of watch-and-learn, rather than
nuke-and-pave, the world is safer for all. NWGN