If this episode of Bug of the Week reads like a public service announcement, well, that’s because it is. While our usual episodes demystify insects and revel in their curious and marvelous behaviors, every now and then something a bit unseemly pops up and warrants attention. In past episodes we have quelled fears of murder hornet invasions in the DMV, provided information to thwart mosquitoes and ticks, and addressed autumnal invasions of stink bugs, spiders, and other creepy creatures. This week we aim to help you avoid a nasty surprise at your October picnic.
On a recent outing to a park, my granddaughter was frightened when yellowjackets swarmed her blueberry flavored shave ice. A second unnerving tale arose when a colleague took a swig from a soda can and imbibed a yellowjacket. Fortunately, the angry vespid stung her tongue, not her throat, prior to ejection from her mouth. Lucky her, to only suffer a swollen tongue and not a life-threatening occlusion of the throat. Yellowjackets are among the most aggressive of all stinging insects in the DMV. During late summer and early autumn yellowjackets operate at a fevered pitch as workers try to gather food to maximize the production of brood back at the nest. Unlike the nests of honey bees, yellowjacket nests contain no honey or pollen. These rascals are meat eaters that also gain carbohydrates from fruits, flowers, and sometimes human-made sources. At sunny October picnics and tailgating parties, yellowjackets visit plates and battle you for bites of barbecued chicken. Meaty protein will be taken back to the hive for the developing brood. Yellow jacket larvae are fed meat and carbohydrate rich foods provided by the workers. Natural prey items of yellow jackets are other insects such as caterpillars and beetles that plague garden and landscape plants. In this regard, yellowjackets are highly beneficial.
By late summer and early autumn, colonies may contain thousands of workers and their subterranean or aerial nests can attain the size of a football. Under extraordinary circumstances, nests may persist for more than one year and become enormous. There are reports of monster yellowjacket nests in southern states reaching the size of a “Volkswagen Beetle”. In late summer, back in the nest, the yellowjacket assembly line switches from production of workers to the production of queens and drones. Foraging occurs at a frenetic pace. Queens produced in autumn leave the nest and seek protected locations under tree bark or in other outdoor refuges to escape the ravages of winter before founding new colonies next spring. You can learn a bit more about yellowjackets in a previous episode entitled “Be careful around yellowjackets: Eastern yellowjackets, Vespula maculifrons”. Bumble bees and honey bees are also on the prowl for sugar sources during the waning days of autumn. In addition to natural sugar sources, sweet soft drinks are also on the menu. Liquid sugar sources are guzzled and stored in the bee’s specialized honey stomach. Carbohydrate rich liquids are fed to brood, other bees, or turned into honey upon returning to the hive.
October is a month when stinging insects hunt for food. In the wild, caterpillars are a regular source of protein and carbohydrate rich honeydew supplies energy for yellowjacket workers and brood. Human-made sources like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are on the menu and sweet soft drinks are favorite sources of sugar. Soda cans may contain nasty surprises, bees or wasps, so be careful and consider pouring drinks into cups. Open cups provide a chance to look before you sip. For children, consider using cups with reusable straws and tight-fitting lids for soft drinks.
What can you do to avoid confrontations with these stingers? Choose picnic and tailgating spots carefully. Do not set up your picnic near a trash container or dumpster where yellowjackets and bees may be foraging for discarded barbeque or half-full cups of cans of sugary soft drinks. Bring a covered container to stow your trash and to keep hungry foragers away from food scraps and partially filled drink containers. Keep food covered. This reduces recruitment by foragers that accumulate around accessible food sources. Drink from clear bottles or pour drinks into clear cups. This will allow you to observe stinging insects doing a backstroke in your drink before you down them. Bees and yellowjackets often find their way into pop-top cans and can disappear down your gullet without being seen. Instead of canned drinks, try juices in drink boxes equipped with tight fitting straws. These are great for children who often place canned soft drinks down for a while before returning to finish them. Better yet, for your youngsters, pour soft-drinks into one of those cleverly designed drink containers with tight fitting lids and reusable sippy straws (good for the environment too!). If yellowjackets try to sneak a bite of your food, gently brush them away rather than engaging in hysterical slapping and squealing. Quick movements and non-lethal blows can incite painful stings. Oh, and you may have heard that yellowjackets are capable of multiple stings. This is only partially true. Contrary to common belief, some yellowjackets have barbed stingers like our friends the honey bees. Yellowjackets may lose their stingers and be eviscerated in the process. If you are stung, apply ice to the site of the sting to reduce swelling and pain. If you are stung and experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or swallowing, hives on your body, disorientation, lightheadedness or other unusual symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Enjoy outdoor feasts with friends and families on these glorious October days. By taking a few precautions you can avoid nasty surprises from yellowjackets and busy bees.
We thank Dr. Shrewsbury for drinking a yellow jacket and living to tell about it, and Eloise for braving out the feisty wasp’s attack on her shave ice. We also thank Dr. Nancy Breisch for sharing her expertise and knowledge about stinging insects.