Yellow Jackets

Oct 1, 2019

I don’t think most of my friends would describe me as a killer, but after I got stung by the yellow jackets living under my deck, I turned into a cold-hearted murderer, loaded for… well, yellow jackets.

I went to the hardware store and bought some of that stuff with the spray that goes 20 feet in the air and waited until dusk. Then I gave the crack between the deck stoop and the slider a good blast, crowing as the superior species. But, as I was sitting out on the deck a few nights later, I watched as a couple of yellow jackets were back at it, going in and out of the crack.

I clearly needed to know more about the enemy, and I was feeling a small trickle of guilt that I was trying to kill something that is a critical part of the ecosystem. So I called Larry Dapsis, the entomologist at Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. Larry’s known as a tick expert but he’s an all-around bug guy. In fact, back in the day, when he worked for Black Flag, he developed the new, improved Roach Motel.

First, I asked Larry what good yellow jackets were, looking for a rationalization for wiping the nest off the face of the earth. Yellow jackets eat insects, he said, almost any insect. They and hornets are good for keeping insect populations under control, except in places like Hawaii where they’ve become invasive and compete with bird populations for food. But yellow jackets don’t pollinate, except inadvertently when they are hunting for nectar, and they don’t make honey. So, that made me feel a tad better.

The next thing he told me also made me feel better: While I had imagined a little yellow jacket condo under my deck, he described it more of a Soviet-era apartment block with possibly 2,000 of the little devils nesting in what was probably an abandoned rodent hole. The odds of me taking them out with my puny little spray blaster were pretty slim.

Also, yellow jackets hurt. They grab with their mouth parts to keep their prey still while they sting it. And in early fall they are particularly angry since they are empty-nesters without kids to feed and are just randomly scavenging, according to Larry. Fortunately, I’m not allergic, but the sting on the soft part of my palm burned a lot. And they can sting more than once. My husband once put on a pair of pants out of our laundry room only to discover there were several in the pant leg. Let’s just say the yellow jackets were the superior species in that encounter. 

So, I was resolved to kill the ones under the deck. But most yellow jacket sprays are just deodorized kerosene, Larry said, so that didn’t make me feel very good about what I was spraying around the house. He suggested that if I wanted to get rid of them, I should call a pro.

He did have some good news: In New England, yellow jacket nests don’t survive the winter. So that gave me hope that, that if I wanted to be cheap, I could be patient and perhaps the yellow jackets and I could reach some kind of accommodation with only a few weeks to go until frost.

So for now, I’m quietly wary when I’m on the deck. And for their part the yellow jackets seem quieter, too, but perhaps are just respectful living in the shadow of such a cold-hearted huntress.