In which we find yellowjackets the hard way, and choose deadly action

One of the stories I like to tell school kids is the old Ashanti tale of Anansi and Nyamé, in which Anansi agrees to perform three impossible tasks in order to win the magical box containing all the stories of the world.

The kids listen attentively to the story of how Anansi tricks Osebo the leopard of the terrible teeth,and also Mwatia, the fairy whom men never see, but they are always fascinated with the part where Anansi approaches the buzzing nest of Mmboro the hornets who sting like fire.

(the entire story is located online here; it is slightly different than the version I tell, but it's essentially the same story. If you want to hear me telling my version, tune into 90.7fm Everett on Sunday morning, October 4th around 9:30am, also available online at )

Kids--even city kids--understand the bravery needed to cope with stinging insects.

I tend to be pretty nonchalant about bees but I'm a trifle more focussed on the topic of stings (and bites) today because I'm typing this today with icepacks taped to both hands.

I found the yellowjacket nest months ago, in July, while Willy and I were building a stretch of fence near the manure pile. I found the nest in the usual manner--I got stung. Dang, that hurt.

I dropped the fence I was working on and raced for the house to take some benedryl and put an icepack on the sting--I'm not overly worried about anaphylactic shock, but the sting site started swelling immediately and I don't mess around with stuff like that. Twenty minutes later I was back, working on the fence and stepping much more daintily.

As long as we stayed five feet away from the hole in the ground, they didn't bother us, so we re-routed a little bit of the fence and went on with our lives.


Yesterday, while dumping manure on the pile, the goats (who were "helping" with the chore as they often do, by trying to leap in and out of the wheelbarrow, gnawing on my clothes, and generally inviting me to laugh at their silly selves) trampled over the nest--and the bugs attacked. Lupin was covered in stinging, biting yellowjackets, Dobbie had several on his ears, and I got stung and bit on my hands. We ran. The yellowjackets held on and kept stinging and biting. We slapped, jumped, cussed and (in Dobbie's case) rolled in the mud.

Having escaped the bugs at last, I retreated to the house and did some research. (I know I'm a nerd. What did you expect from a librarian--especially a graduate of the library school at Emporia State University, home of the Fighting Hornets?)

Here's what I learned about yellowjackets a.k.a. Vespula vulgaris (even the latin name for them sounds like a sound effect from an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, doesn't it?):

Some people (mad scientists, I suppose) think that yellowjackets are tremendously cool. One enthusiast refers to yellowjackets and other social insects as " one of evolutions most magnificent, successful and instructive developments."*

Harumph. Has he ever been stung by a bunch of them, I wonder?

(I do not find them magnificent at all. I think they are a pain in the, uh, fingers. However, I will grant that they are, from a safe distance, kind of interesting.)

Yellowjackets are considered eusocial, or "true social" insects, and they exhibit the three key traits of true social insects:

1. They have a reproductive division of labor. Individual queens are fertile and reproduce. The workers are sterile or semisterile--they either don't reproduce or reproduce to a far lesser extent.

2. The workers perform tasks to benefit the colony, and in particular cooperatively rear the young.

3. They have a "society" with more than one adult generation coexisting in the colony.

Huh. Who knew?

Nests are typically begun in spring by a single queen, who overwinters and becomes active when the weather gets warm. She emerges in early spring to feed and start a new nest.

The nest grows from spring to midsummer, and the larvae require lots of protein, which is usually other insects but might also be unfortunate humans or goats who pass too close to the nest. In late summer, the colony grows more slowly and requires large amounts of sugar to maintain the queen and workers, so foraging yellowjackets mostly look for rotting fruit and other sources of sugar.**

So, what about getting rid of these nasty creatures?

Many sources recommend NOT getting rid of yellowjacket nests, citing the bugs' insect-destroying habits blah blah blah, and then usually say that mid-summer is the best time to destroy a nest if it really must go away. Once the weather gets colder, the bugs don't fly as well, food becomes more scarce, and the nest itself begins to disintegrate.

However, it's the transition phase--i.e. right now--that the bugs are cold, hungry, and cranky, They won't die of the cold for at least another month, and I'm tired of icepacks.


To get rid of a nest safely, wait until nightfall when the yellowjackets are sluggish and cold.

With a can (or two) of bugspray (Jim chose a permethrin spray product that shoots the powder 20 to 40 feet) spray from far away as you approach the nest. The powder will coat the bugs' wings as they emerge from the hole, and they will die.

Alternately, you can approach the hole after dark (and hopefully when it's really cold, so they don't come out to investigate you) and place a clear glass bowl over the hole.*** The bugs will be confused by their inability to leave the space under the bowl and continue to try to fly out rather than dig another tunnel to escape.

Because Jim is one of those guys who figures "why use 4 nails when 8 nails will do," he chose tospray poison and then coat the inside of a clear glass bowl with poison and put the bowl over the hole.

If I were a nicer person, I'd probably feel sorry for the yellowjackets. I guess there's some pretty strong evidence about me not being nice, and I'm good with that.

Lacking niceness, I shall at least cite my sources:

* Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. Ed. Michael Hutchins, Arthur V. Evans, Jerome A. Jackson, Devra G. Kleiman, James B. Murphy, Dennis A. Thoney, et al. Vol. 3: Insects. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p67-73.

**Pest Notes: Yellow and other social wasps, UC ANR Publication 7450

*** THE STING; Yellow jackets can make their presence known very painfully Anonymous. The Augusta Chronicle. Augusta, Ga.: Jul 17, 2009. pg. B.3


  1. what a terrible experience. I hope you and goats are recovered. Mom

  2. I'm pretty sure that goats are born senile. Every moment is a new moment to a goat. They don't remember much from minute-to-minute, let alone day-to-day, so their lives are peaceful, if somewhat silly. Given the opportunity, they'd probably head right back to the yellowjacket nest, having completely forgotten that it was there. It must be very restful, being a goat. They don't lose sleep over anything!

    The swelling in my hands has gone down significantly...I can even see my knuckles again. Yesterday my fingers looked like--and were as useful as--hot dogs. Today it itches like crazy all the up to my elbows, but it doesn't hurt much anymore.

    Sigh. Pass the benedryl bottle, please.

  3. I hope your stings are feeling better soon! I have never been stung by a bee, so I don't know what it feels like. I do know, that it hurts and can be really bad, so I run away from the bees when I can. I hope to never have to experience a bee sting!

  4. Gah! I had no idea that yellow jackets can bite, too! I've yet to be stung or bitten by one. They are just not that common around here. We do have wasps, though. My hubby is terribly allergic. We're not nice to them, either.
    I'm sure my hubby would agree with Jim's philosophy!

    Feel better soon. I think a glass of wine or cold beer would help with the pain (to drink, silly, just in case you were considering dunking your hands into the alcohol. lol!).


  5. We are also not nice people and nailed a nest about three weeks ago. They built it just outside of our front door, so they were asking for it right?

  6. Thanks for the info - that was fascinating! And I hope the stings feel better soon - ouch! We don't have too many of the ground-nesting type around here - I think they're one of the most aggressive, but we do have polynises (I expect I'm misspelling that) wasps, that look like tiny yellow jackets, that nest inside things - like outside covered electrical outlets - and are very aggressive. They're a European species that's displacing the native species, which nests in the open under things like eaves, and is much less aggressive. So I take out the nests inside things and leave and watch the under the eaves nests. I used to keep bees many years ago and find the social insects fascinating.

  7. I also think yellowjackets are fascinating, as long as they're nesting a proper distance away! I try to be tolerant of other living things, but I would have nuked that nest too. Your poor hands! The last time I got stung by a (single!) wasp I felt woozy and sick all day.

    Anansi is a fun god to tell kids about, I bet!

  8. I haven't been stung in several years, but even one is not pleasant. Hope you and the goats are recovering.

  9. Great post. Fascinating. Sorry you had to get stung, but think of it as suffering for your art! That's cold comfort, I know. A bit like an ice pack?

  10. A commentary that doesn't warrant a full posting on my blog, Haiku Farm Too--at least not yet :-)

    The philosophy that Aarene refers to in her post is hereditary. There are barns, sheds, houses and garages that my Grandpa Roberts built near Snohomish, Washington that attest to its effectiveness. Regarding yellow jackets, though: that's just defense in-depth, a sound military strategy.

    I only wish the permethrin dust could shoot so far; 2' - 3' is more like it. That's why I hit them at dusk, and the temps were in the upper 30's lower 40's. No reaction to dusting them. I did manage to slightly displace the bowl, however, so there were a few very wobbly fliers the next day.

    No problem. I hit them again and re-positioned the bowl. That was Sunday, and I haven't had the opportunity to check on them since. I'll let you know, if there's enough interest.

    My verification word is 'disesse', what I've certainly caused the target bugs. Good thing I'm not Buddhist.


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