The family that includes bees and wasps is actually quite huge. They range in size from so tiny that they’re mostly overlooked to the quite large and scary looking cicada killer wasps that can be over two inches in length. Most are solitary in their habits, but a few species are colonial and build large nests that can be home to thousands of workers. Some of the tiny ones are parasites of larger insects and are important natural controls for some destructive pest species. Most of them can be considered beneficial, since they either play an important role in pollination of many plants or are predators or parasites of other insects and their larvae.
Most, but not all, wasps and bees are equipped with stingers that they use in subduing their prey and in self defense. Most are not aggressive toward humans. Even the huge, scary cicada killer wasps tend to ignore people unless they’re physically threatened. The colonial species still serve useful roles in nature, but can become problematic when they build too close to humans and think their nest is threatened. Whatever or whoever is perceived as a threat can end up with multiple stings as the workers attack en mass. A honey bee can sting only once, but wasps can sting multiple times. Large colony attacks can become deadly. Adults should know better than to approach colonies too closely, but children and pets may not be as careful.
Honey bee colonies are supposed to survive the winter, but increasingly worrying numbers of hives have no living bees by spring. Colonial wasps, on the other hand, begin each growing season as a single young queen that has wintered over. The queens enter winter hibernation already fertilized by drone males that die once their biological function is completed. All the sterile female workers die, as well, once freezing weather arrives. Some colonial wasp colonies down south survive the winter and grow to many thousands of workers. Colonial wasps can be particularly dangerous this time of year since their colonies build in numbers all summer long and reach maximum size in the fall.
Paper wasps are black and brown and about an inch long. Their umbrella-shaped nests up under the eves of the house or under the deck may have dozens of sterile female workers who capture prey to feed more young workers and the queen. Bald-faced hornets are black and white, and are similar in length, but more stoutly built. They typically live in large covered paper nests above the ground in trees or bushes. Nests can grow to considerably larger than a football, and may hold hundreds of workers. Slightly smaller yellow jackets are black and yellow and may be mistaken for bees. They have none of the fuzziness that bees have, though. Their paper nests are typically hidden underground or inside a structure. They often take over a small animal burrow and hollow out a larger nest chamber as the colony grows. A single yellow jacket nest may hold hundreds of workers by this time of year, but, hidden as they are, may not be noticed until it’s too late. Yellow jackets typically are predatory meat eaters that feed on other insects and their larvae. They develop a sort of sweet tooth late in the year, too, and may be attracted to fruit or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. People sometimes get stung on the mouth when they don’t notice a yellow jacket that is sharing their lunch.
If it’s determined that a colonial wasp nest must be destroyed because they threaten humans, it might best be left to a pest control professional, who will know how to use, and have access to, the correct products. Wasps don’t like to fly at night, though, and any do-it-yourself control attempts, even with commercial sprays, should wait until well after dark when all the workers are in the nest and are less likely to swarm to its defense. Hornet and yellow jacket nests are difficult to penetrate or even reach with most sprays. However you approach them, keep in mind that a wasp colony in attack mode can lead to a lot of pain and can even be deadly.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.