Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

Yellowjackets are first-order social insects, not because they like picnics so much, but because they live together in large colonies. The colonies consist of many sterile female workers and a fertile, egg-laying queen. The workers play an active role in making elegant paper nests and looking after larvae. At first, workers are produced. Late in the season queens and males form. In cold and temperate climes, all members of the colony die except new queens who form new colonies in the spring.

Yellowjacket and baldfaced hornet nests are architectural marvels. Workers collect small pellets of wood pulp from plants and carry them to the nest. There the workers mix the pulp with salivary secretions, to form hexagonal cells or the thin papery sheets of the nest’s outer layers. The thin paper layers are light and strong with spaces in between that act as insulation.

Yellowjackets are around all summer mostly doing good by killing many insects that we consider pests. Later in the season these prey become less abundant and yellowjackets move on to other food sources, like picnic chicken.

Most humans learn at an early age that black and yellow flying insects generally are equipped with a modified ovipositor that acts as a stinger to deliver a powerful, painful mixture of enzymes and proteins. We learn they can hurt.

Essig’s statement describing baldface hornets in his Insects of Western North Americareminds me of a childhood activity of mine. Essig writes “The workers are very pugnacious, but perhaps no more so than the hundreds of country boys who destroy their nests.” God, thinking about it still gives me an adrenaline rush. My friends and I spot the nest, large, ominous and gray, the size of a basketball. We collect rocks. Then the assault begins, first from a distance, then closer and closer. Scared to death we will hit the nest, but driven to continue by some ancient primal urge that some of us outgrow. The barrage continues until bang, someone strikes the target. Out pours the angry band to drive away their tormentors, which they do with little effort. Then, forgive us, we return and continue until someone gets stung.

I have often thought that I stayed out of trouble as an adolescent by throwing rocks at yellowjackets and hornets. Others got their thrills and into trouble by stealing hubcaps and the rings from Buick hood ornaments.

Some advice from an expert. When uninvited yellowjacket guests show up at your next picnic or outdoor meal, don’t scream and shout, throw your arms and run about. Stay calm, even if the yellowjacket is on the fork about to go into your mouth or just slipped between your big toe and your sandal. A slow gentle brush or wiggle is more likely to save you from pain and agony than a swat or stomp. As a friend and former colleague used to say, “gentle ways are best.”

— Dr. Frank Lang

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