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Protect your bees from autumn wasps

If you live in a place where autumn hoards of yellowjackets or bald-faced hornets enjoy baskets of honey bee tenders, now is a good time to do something about it.

Colonies of social wasps do not overwinter in the northern climates. Instead, virgin queens mate in the fall and then go off by themselves to overwinter in a protected place. Come spring, the queens get busy starting new colonies in much the same way as bumble bee queens.

The foundress queen begins to build a nest, lay eggs, and provision the larvae until she has daughters old enough to do the housework. Gradually, she abandons her other chores and spends all her time laying eggs. So social wasp colonies, like bumble bee colonies, start off small in the spring and build throughout the summer and fall. The colonies continue to thrive until the first hard freeze.

If you’ve ever tried to stop a marauding bunch of yellowjackets from taking over a honey bee hive, you know how hard it can be. No matter how many you squash, they just keep coming. They will kill and eat both larvae and adults, and the freshly stored honey serves as an after-dinner mint of sorts.

You can greatly decrease the number of wasp colonies in your immediate area by killing the spring queens. They are easy to spot because they are big and because they often stop by the earliest blooms for a quick energy drink.

I often hear them before I see them because they will scratch at unpainted wooden boards or split-rail fences. They chew these fibers into a pulp and use them to start their paper mache-like nests. Sometimes several at once will be scritching and pulling at the splinters, making the oddest sound. If you find them so employed, it is easy to scoop them up with a butterfly net.

You can also use pheromone lures that are designed to attract a number of different wasp species, or you can use homemade traps made with a plastic water bottle and a piece of meat. I hear they love smoked turkey, but I have no personal experience. Just remember, don’t use anything sweet because bees will be attracted to sweets as well as wasps.

In the years I aggressively pursued wasp queens in early spring, I greatly decreased the autumn wasp problem. In some years I virtually eliminated it. But once the nests are established, they are hard to find and difficult to kill. So now is the time—I found my first one of the season today.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Yellowjacket in March
Wasps kill honey bees to feed their young. Photo © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

WesternWilson
Reply

A timely post Rusty! I was doing a check of all hives and 2 had wasp queens inside the feeder box. Managed to squish one. I hate to kill them but they are murder to deal with in the fall.

Rusty
Reply

I just got my third one today. I hate to kill them as well, but they have no mercy when it comes to honey bees. Update: make that four.

Donna
Reply

Just put my lures up tonight. Thanks for the reminder!

Bill
Reply

Don’t hate the wasps/hornets too much. They consume a lots of pests that otherwise both your throughout the summer, mainly flies. The reason the hornets/wasps get so active and aggressive in the fall is, they lost most of their natural prey and they need to finish off the last batch of young before freeze up; the Queens of next year. I’ve gotten by with reducing hive entrances and using fishy (tuna) baits in the fall, which will effectively reduces the queens for the following spring.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I see your point, but there are thousands of species of solitary wasps to take care of flies and the like, and the solitary wasps won’t overrun the bee hives. I don’t think the loss of a few social wasp nests will increase the fly population. If you ever get hard up for reading material, try Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History by Kevin O’Neill. Fascinating.

Erin
Reply

One of the beekeepers I know says wet dog food is a good wasp attractant. I’m going to give it a go tomorrow I think, in some milk bottle traps.

G.S.
Reply

Traps set with pheromone bait; no mercy on these from me. It’s personal.

Megan
Reply

Rusty, I bought a handful of kid butterfly nets at the local Ace Hardware and I trapped zillions of yellowjackets all summer. Got out early in spring, but I guess not early enough! It was gratifying to drown 30 or 40 of the little you-know-whats at a time, but they still decimated my hives. Nets ready and the traps are hung, so we’ll hope for a better year. Appreciate the heads’ up!
Have you seen the European ApiShield? It looks like a bottom board with a wasp trap built in the bottom. I’d love to try and build something similar and see if it works for our wasps and hornets. http://www.vita-europe.com/products/apishield-hornet-trap/

Rusty
Reply

Megan,

Wow, that ApiShield looks really cool, but since it also catches robber bees, it seems like it could decimate one hive while saving another. I wonder if there is a way to keep honey bees out of it.

Melissa
Reply

I am new to this bee stuff but I thought that since that foraging robber bee got caught and could not go back to the colony and tell the other bees about her find that it would stop the robbing before it really got started. So in that way it would not hurt either colony really. Please let me know if I am wrong in my understanding. Of course if she came while the hive was open and then got away and reported home I could see lots more honey bees getting caught after.

Rusty
Reply

Melissa,

If the hives are right next to each other, as is often the case, hundreds of robbers will detect the source as soon as they’re out the door. If they all enter the trap for a sample, they all will die.

Joanna
Reply

Gah. A crew of bald-face ladies have set up shop in a bird box on the fence a foot to the north and at just above eye level with the top of my first-year hive which has been building like crazy. Obviously I’m not using anything even remotely toxic like acetone in a bag as I have a massive bumble and sweat bee population in addition to “my ladies.” So. The box is in full sun. If I gear up in my suit and duct tape the two places I’ve observed them entering, then plastic bag to the best of my ability, will they be cooked in tomorrow’s 75 degree heat? Or will they just chew through? I appreciate their aphid and beetle work but they are primed to get me if I work the hive and they appear to be actively hunting the honeys all the time. Any other ideas? Hose impractical given location.

Rusty
Reply

Joanna,

I’d say it is worth a try, especially if it stays warm. Black plastic would make it unbearably hot in there. But suit up well and leave it in place for a couple of days because if they survive, they won’t be in a good mood when you remove the bag.

Joanna
Reply

Round one with just the glad force flex triple ply bag was a failure. I put it on at 11pm and when I went down at 6 am they had already chewed through it in three places. Recyclers! Round two tonight was an old crib mattress cover wrapping over the existing bag plus another glad bag. Unsightly. Really hope it works because if they make it out of this round i have no idea how I’ll get that mess off the fence! Plus I haven’t been in the hive for four weeks and I’m excited as Christmas to peek.

Rusty
Reply

Joanna,

Interesting and I just learned something: I didn’t know they could eat through plastic so fast. Maybe because it was hot and soft?

Joanna
Reply

Probably a combination of heat softening and some stretching from the unrounded wood corners of the bird box they’re in. But they did chew a sizable hole right through the middle directly over the entrance to the bird box that they had been using. I’m now on round three (tightening up the new cover structure) and am only seeing one or two circling around. Not to jinx myself, but if I ever get to a point where I can take all this mess down it will be very interesting to see whether they deposited the chewed plastic onto their nest as they do with the wood that they chew. Interesting- but probably not worth the psychic scarring of torturing these darn hornets.

grace
Reply

Your site is mainly about honey bees. I do not have honey bee hives although this year many honey bees are visiting my flowers, however I am interested to know it these wasps raid the nests of bumble bees? Should I be decimating the wasp population to protect the bumble bees?

Rusty
Reply

Grace,

I don’t think you should worry about wasps decimating the bumble bees. There are many, many kinds of wasps and most are predatory on other insects, including bees. But to decimate all wasps would upset the balance in a natural ecosystem. Wasps are also scavengers and often eat dead insects, including bees, and this is a good thing. Large colonies of wasps such as yellowjackets are often attracted to honey bee hives because they are easy for the wasps to find—they smell like nectar, honey, and bee brood and the smell travels long distances because the hives are so large. Even so, in a normal healthy honey bee hive, the guards are able to fend off the wasps.

A bumble bee colony is much smaller, but even so, guards are posted at the entrance to ward off intruders. Also, bumble bees keep only small pots of honey on hand—just enough for the queen—so the scent isn’t nearly so powerful. The reward for a group of wasps is not nearly as great as it would be if they overpowered a honey bee colony.

All things considered, I would let the bees and wasps coexist as they would in a natural situation. Some bumble bees will be eaten by wasps, but probably no more than are eaten by birds, frogs, and lizards or are struck by cars, lawn mowers, or insecticides. Wasps are important pollinators too, so to target all wasps would be detrimental to a natural system.

Roger
Reply

I just found some time over Christmas to write about the Asian Hornet. Interested in the different traps for hornets. Will research further.

sandra carnet
Reply

It’s November, a warm November, in northeast Georgia and I just trapped and killed what I believe is a Japanese hornet that I found at my hive yesterday. I saw him flying at the hive, then he sent in the upper entrance underneath the outer cover and emerged with one of my bees. Promptly dropped to the ground and started stinging the honey bee. I trapped the hornet and took it up to the house to kill it and inspect. Looks like all the images I’ve seen of Japanese hornets. How can I protect my hives from these monsters.

Rusty
Reply

Sandra,

Fortunately, we do not (yet) have Japanese hornets in North America; one of those can kill up to 40 honey bees in a single minute. But worldwide there are about 75,000 species of wasps (a hornet is a type of wasp), many of whom look like each other. Wasps eat other insects, so bee hives offer a plentiful offering of food.

You can best protect your hives by reducing the main entrance to very small (about 3/4-inch by 3/8-inch) and closing all other entrances until after the first hard freeze.

The fact that a hornet was able to get into the hive a take a bee is not a good sign. Your bees should have been all over that intruder. You need to inspect the colony and make sure all is well inside.

Nance
Reply

I just started with one box for native bees. I have one wasp that keeps going in and out of one of the larger holes. Do I kill it??? I hate to but will it hurt the native bees?

Rusty
Reply

Nance,

What you are seeing is probably a potter wasp or mason wasp. They build nests very similar to the cavity-nesting bees and seal them up with mud in the same fashion. I let them live side-by-side with my bees. They could catch a bee now and again, but I don’t see them as a threat.

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