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A delicious meal of wasp larvae

Last winter was mild here in western Washington, so I predicted a surge in yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets this summer. Sure enough, they are everywhere and I’m bracing for battle. Come autumn, when the wasps are looking for a treat, the honey bee colonies will be prime targets.

Like bumble bee queens, mated yellowjacket and hornet queens find a protected place to overwinter. In a normal year, many don’t make it till spring due to the cold and wet weather. But when the winters are especially mild, the number of surviving queens spikes and wasps appear everywhere.

Last week my dog was barking like an idiot and he wouldn’t come to me, so I began thrashing through the understory myself to discover the problem. I found him with his forepaws on a tree, barking into the leaves. When I looked up into the tree, I was amazed to see a huge yellowjacket nest.

The nest was light gray and egg-shaped, wider at the top, and yellowjackets were walking all over the outside surface. Unfortunately, it was right in the heart of my apiary, about equidistant from all three of my hive stands, and about thirty feet from the ground.

I wanted to get a photo but there were too many leaves for a clear shot. My husband said he would help me trim back some branches later in the week, so I collected the dog and left the ‘jackets alone.

By the time we went back to cut the branches, the nest had been attacked and about half of it was completely gone. Shreds of the gray outer covering where hanging in the lower branches and the wasps were in a frenzy.

In retrospect, I think the dog was barking at whatever was trying to get the wasps. At the time I was perplexed because I didn’t think he would bark at a wasp nest. But something else wanted that nest—a raccoon is my guess—and that was the creature my dog objected to. I hadn’t seen anything else up there, but once I saw the nest I stopped looking for other things, so I could have easily missed it.

In the following days I saw many yellowjackets collecting wood fibers. Normally, I only see them harvest fibers in the early spring, but I suspect that in an emergency—such as when someone trashes your home—it is necessary to rebuild. They love weathered unpainted wood, and I often discover them by the sound they make, a scratching or scritching noise as they scrape the wood with their mouthparts. They chew the wood into a paste-like substance which they use to build the nest covering.

I don’t know what will happen to the damaged nest but I suspect that if the queen survived, the colony will repair the nest. I can’t get close enough to the nest to be certain of the species, but I believe it belongs to the common aerial yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaria.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Yellowjacket-nest
I didn’t get a “before” shot, but you can estimate the nest’s original size from this “after” photo.The nest had been completely enclosed with a small entrance hole in the center bottom. © Rusty Burlew.

 

Comments

Tim Eisele
Reply

It could have been one or more squirrels. Around here, the red squirrels will tear up wasp nests when the wasp populations crash in the fall, and the damage they do to the nest looks a lot like that. Although, I wouldn’t expect such a small animal to be able to shrug off the number of stings they’d get from a fully populated nest like that, unless they were really quick about it.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Tim,

Interesting. We do have a few squirrels here, but not many. I guessed raccoons because we have a lot and they are into everything. Weasels and opossum are also regulars, but I’m not familiar with their habits. Whoever did it was gutsy. Big nest.

Maizie
Reply

So just out of curiosity, with it being so close to your hives, what will you do? I live in an area that is struggling with a major wasp problem and have been trying to figure out what to do. I’ve already caught them feasting on dead bees outside of the hive, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they start killing live bees. I’ve taken to catching them in glass jars and squashing them, but they seem endless! I’ve set up wasp traps, but haven’t wanted to use any poisons.

Rusty
Reply

Maizie,

I use pheromone lures and I reduce all entrances to one bee-length. If a colony is small, I also use a robbing screen.

Lyn
Reply

I used to try to get along with yellowjackets, knowing they are also creatures on this earth. But that was before they totally destroyed one of my hives. They ate the honey and the bees and the larvae. No more Ms. Niceperson, I actively seek them out and destroy them. Usually they build nests in the ground, but this year I have found two paper nests, similar to yours, that I destroyed. They eat protein in the early part of the year, to build up their brood; later they switch to sugar for sustenance, as in apple cider or rotting fruit. Or your drink on the porch.

Helen
Reply

In the UK we have also had a mild winter. It has given my husband and myself great satisfaction when we have found and killed either hibernating wasp queens (we don’t call them yellowjackets!). Around 7 sleepy ones in the woodshed. We also killed around 6 in early spring as the queens were looking for wood to chew, or caterpillars for their first brood. The wasp jars will be out later, baited with jam.

We do get the odd hornet buzz slowly across the lawn, just the European one, which I think is still a protected species. I don’t think it’s a real problem, hopefully the Asian hornet won’t make it over here, though it’s having a ball over in France 🙁

Dustin
Reply

The insects you have pictured are NOT Yellow Jackets, but rather Bald Faced Hornets. Yellow Jackets usually burrow into the ground to make their colony (year round). Bald Faced Hornets make the distinctive paper nest you have pictured. Birds are usually the most destructive to the paper nests in the fall, after the Hornets have left the paper nest to over-winter in the ground. In your pic, since the leaves are on the tree are still present, (ie not fall), I suspect your colony pic may have been taken in the summer, possibly when the nest was still under construction.

Rusty
Reply

Dustin,

You didn’t read the text. The nest pictured (photographed July 3) was made by Dolichovespula arenaria, also known as aerial yellowjackets. They are called “aerial” because they build their nests in trees, not in the ground like most other yellowjackets. They are in the same genus as the bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula, but it is a different species. The bald-faced hornet is Dolichovespula maculata. I have plenty of both here, and they are visually quite different.

Furthermore, yellowjacket colonies in this area do not overwinter. Also, the nest was not under construction, because two days prior to the photo it had been complete. When I went to photograph the completed nest, it had been destroyed.

I’m repeating myself here; most of this was in the article. If you need a good source of information for your identifications, I recommend bugguide.net.

Roger
Reply

Have you considered the possibility that crows might have been the culprits? Here in southern Ohio I have seen that happen. Several crows will descend on one of these big gray football shaped nests and literally tear it to pieces. Apparently they like to eat what they find inside.

Rusty
Reply

Roger,

Good thought, it could very well be some large bird. I haven’t seen crows around here in a number of years, but certainly there are lots of other birds and birds love insect larvae.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Whoever did that, it seems like a whole lot of ouch in that meal.

I assume that if the queen wasp did not survive, the nest is finished, that there is no supersedure queen replacement in these annual nests. Post updates.

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

That’s the way I understand it: when the queen is gone the colony is finished.

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