More Yellowjackets

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

Yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets and the like don’t seem to be particularly bothersome this summer. At least they haven’t bothered me much. Our outdoor meals have been mostly devoid of uninvited guests and I haven’t had any unpleasant encounters in the field this year. Last year a small paper nest above the front door was done in, forgive me, with a burst of chemicals after dark. They never knew what hit them.

I feel slightly guilty about doing in wasps because they live such interesting lives as social insects, build such complicated and exotic homes and eat many critters we humans consider pests. What drives me to destruction is their modified ovipositor that acts as a syringe to deliver a powerful and painful mixture of enzymes and proteins.

Much of their lives these stinging insects go about minding their own business, eating aphids and other pests. As the summer progresses, easily available natural food slowly disappears and yellowjackets shift to other fare, like picnic ham. They can become a real annoyance, especially to human picnickers who go berserk.

Last summer I had a real lesson in yellowjacket behavior and foreign cultures. My Japanese botanical colleagues were back for another two weeks of gleaning our flora for exotic chemicals. This past summer, at Howard Prairie Lake, Iinuma, the pharmacologist from Gifu Pharmaceutical University did a most amazing thing.

After finishing lunch at the picnic area, most of us wandered off to relax a little before continuing our collecting efforts. As I started back toward our van, I noticed Iinuma at our picnic table, with his elbow on the table, staring at his hand. At first I thought he might be having a cigarette. No smoke. As I got closer I could see that his hand was upright and his thumb and forefingers were together and there was a yellowjacket on his fingertips.

“Iinuma, what on earth is going on?” As I said that, the yellowjacket rose into the air, settled down, then rose into the air again. By this time I was close enough to see that there was a thin thread between the yellowjacket and Iinuma’s thumb and forefinger. Suddenly, when the yellowjacket rose again, Iinuma released the string and the insect flew off into the distance with the thread clearly visible. Iinuma had tied one end of a thread to a tiny piece of sandwich ham. He held the opposite end of the thread between thumb and forefinger with the ham balanced on his fingertips, sat still, and waited for Ms. Yellowjacket to arrive. Iinuma explained to me that in the area near Nagano, Japan, where he grew up, yellowjacket larvae, deep-fried and seasoned with sugar and soy sauce, are a much sought-after delicacy. They found yellowjacket nests using the ham bait and silk thread trick. The flying yellowjacket with dangling thread could be easily followed back to its nest. Once in a while a yellowjacket might stop and bite through the thread, presumably to make flying easier. I was amazed, not so much that Iinuma ate yellowjacket larvae, but that the yellowjacket was so docile. The yellowjacket had no intention of stinging the hand that fed it. Another yellowjacket didn’t try to sting me, in spite of my record of yellowjacket murder, but flew off, string dangling, for its nest. What is the lesson here?

— Dr. Frank Lang

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