How I threw a banquet for yellowjackets
Up until this week I hadn’t seen many yellowjackets. Since 2009 seemed to be “the year of the yellowjacket,” I was expecting to see fewer this year. Nevertheless I had yellowjacket pheromone lures hanging nearby and my hive entrances had been reduced for a month. Everything seemed fine.
But late last week I decided to stack my two smallest colonies for the winter. They both were started from nucs during the summer, and they both covered somewhat less than ten frames. I decided to stack them, separated by a double-screen board, with one entrance in back and one in front—the same orientation they had all summer. In a few weeks I would stack both on top of a strong colony with another double-screen board. If all went well, the large colony would help keep the two smaller ones warm.
Somehow, though, everything went wrong. When I moved the two colonies, I must have broken some honeycomb. A small amount of honey started dripping through the varroa screen. The hive stand is about two feet high, so this honey fell from the screen and oozed into the ground in the empty space under the hive. Of course I didn’t notice it at the time. I stacked the hives, opened the proper entrances and walked away.
About three hours later I noticed a cloud engulfing the stacked colonies. Bees were everywhere. They were zipping through the trees, careening past the kitchen window, and milling above the driveway. There were more bees than could possibly come from those two colonies.
On inspection, I realized what had happened. The drips of honey had created a robbing frenzy. Since we are in a nectar dearth, bees from everywhere descended on these two small colonies. Fighting was rampant. Bees on the lid, on the landing boards, and on the ground were engaged in mortal combat. Pairs of bees spun like tops from the combined action of their wings. Dead bees were everywhere. I immediately shut down the entrances to almost nothing.
The real winners in this mess were the yellowjackets. Smelling death, these wasps—or “meat bees” as they are sometimes called—arrived in waves. They feasted on dead honey bees, drips of honey, and lost pollen loads while the honey bees continued to kill each other. Also collecting the spoils of war were bald-faced hornets and a legion of ants. The wasps made repeated attempts to enter the hives while the honey bees were busy fighting each other. I watched nervously, but the reduced entrances were being defended and I didn’t see any wasps make it inside.
The frenzy lasted for two days. The fighting finally stopped. The yellowjackets are still scavenging, but there are fewer. The dead bodies have been carted off by one creature or another. I have no idea how bad the losses to the two young colonies were, but I’m certainly not going to open them now to find out.
The real lesson here is to be careful during a nectar dearth. I should have stacked those colonies earlier—before the dearth—or later, when it’s too cold to fly. Also, I should not have assumed there were no wasps just because I hadn’t seen any. They were just lurking in the shadows, waiting for someone like me to provide them a feast.