Yellow jackets and other stingers


Yellowjacket season is in full swing and has been for several weeks.

I placed my yellowjacket trap on the rail of my deck and baited it with sugar water, a few drops of balsamic vinegar and two over-ripe figs. Yellowjackets are enticed to enter the trap through one of several funnel-shaped openings, and most, about nine of every ten, ultimately drown in the fluid. I’ve been capturing 10-20 each day since I put the trap out, hardly enough to make a serious dent in the population, which can number in the hundreds per colony. The trap also captures several baldfaced hornets each day.

This season I’ve learned a thing or two about the behavior of yellowjackets. They tend to be most actively foraging for food in late afternoon, with a period of lesser activity during early to mid-morning. I also learned the hard way that a yellowjacket will attack without apparent provocation.

To conserve water, I customarily relieve myself outside, usually between the uprights of my deck. One morning I was doing so about 6:30 a.m., when one of the little stingers stung me on the upper eyelid. The deck is about ten feet above ground, and I thought I might have peed on its nest. An examination of the area beneath the deck failed to reveal the presence of a yellowjacket nest. Both dogs were inside, so they could not have been responsible for the insect’s aggressive behavior. Disturbance of its nest by an armadillo or some other critter might have triggered the attack.

The sting hurt but was not nearly as painful as some of the other stings I’ve experienced.

The most painful sting I’ve ever gotten was by a European hornet. One night a few yew years ago Janie was lying in the bed, reading with her overhead light on, when she suddenly exclaimed, “Bob, something stung me, and it hurt like the dickens!”

I captured the stinger, an inch-long wasp I’d never seen before. Dr.Wayne Clark identified it as a European hornet. I did some research on the species and learned that it is the only wasp that is active at night and is attracted to light. The following night I was reading in bed, and one of the hornets stung me. The only thing that was more painful than that sting was the bite of a copperhead.

On each night Janie and I were stung, I had left the door to the deck partially open so I could enjoy the songs of Chuck-Wills-Widows. On the following night, the deck light was on, and hornets were swarming around it. The next day I saw the hornets flying back and forth to and from my  chimney. I realized that they had constructed their nest in a crevice in the chimney.

I bought some wasp and hornet spray and prepared to wage war against the invaders. After dark I turned the deck light on, the hornets swarmed it, and through a crack in the door, I sprayed the hornets until all of them were dead. The war was won, and the problem was solved.

European hornets apparently are relatively recent arrivals to these parts and, as nearly as I can determine, are uncommon. They usually construct their nests in hardwood tree cavities but have been reported to nest in wall voids and even in attics. And, as I learned, they will also construct their nests in rock crevices.

Urban legends about the hornets abound in some European countries. For example, there is a belief that three stings can kill a human and six can kill a horse.

The hornets will vigorously defend their nests, and if they are discovered on one’s premises, the residents should take care to ensure that doors are closed after dark.

Last week, I wrote about ants and that imported fire ants seemed to be declining. I wrote and queried the world’s leading authority on ants, Dr. E. O. Wilson, about his impressions. He responded, “It is my impression from multiple sources and my own visits that Solenopsis invicta (the fire ant) is declining. If so, it would repeat the history of Solenopsis gemminata, the plague ant of 1518 in Hispaniola.” I Googled the subject, and sure enough, Google knew about it and of Dr. Wilson’s historical account of the plague, which I thought was remarkable. Stay tuned.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.



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