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Capture the Queens

by Tina Shearer, Colorado Master Gardener

Close up of a Yellow Jacket on a leaf

Photo credit: Purdue University

Spring has sprung. As I survey our yard, my mind wanders to eating outdoors on the deck – barbecues and picnics to come.  And then I see it flying by.  No, not a drone, or even a robin.  A wasp.  More specifically, a yellow jacket.

Yellow jackets dine on sugar and protein sources including nectar, insects, and spiders, and also sweet drinks and meat that we humans enjoy.  They create nests in and around our homes, becoming larger in number as summer wears on.  Yellow jackets ruin outdoor dining on patios and decks throughout the Front Range.  They swarm our food and crawl into our beverage cans, and they sting.  Yellow jackets are social animals that defend their nests.  And unlike bees, which have one sting each; a wasp can sting repeatedly.

Last fall, increasing numbers of yellow jackets in our home (20 one morning) had us searching in vain for where they were getting in.  A visit from a professional revealed that the yellow jackets had built a nest in the wall of our home office, and were entering and leaving through a vent. The exterminator (in safety gear) sprayed the area from outside the house after blocking the indoor vent with masking tape.  Hundreds of yellow jackets angrily stormed outside – a regular Amityville Horror moment. The exterminator (he and his wife have been in business in Longmont for 40 years) mention that they hardly keep up with all the calls they get in recent years. We ask what to do to keep these nuisance pests at manageable levels. The goal is always manageable levels, not complete eradication. How to avoid a visit from an exterminator?

Take action in spring. We’ve all seen the ubiquitous plastic hanging traps dangling from trees, eaves of homes, and under decks around town. But do they work? If used timely and appropriately, they keep the numbers manageable.  To understand the best management of any pest, it’s important to understand their life cycle and propagation.

The queen is crucial to the survival of yellow jackets. And she flies to find a suitable nesting place in early spring. The traps are most effective if they catch queens, preventing the laying of eggs, which hatch into larvae, become pupae, and eventually become the flying, foraging hordes that drive us nuts. The queens are birthing machines. Catching and killing some of her offspring during summer and fall will not stop her, although it may make your yard more pleasant.

Head over to your favorite gardening or hardware store, get as many traps as needed, and follow the instructions on the box. Place them on the perimeter of the areas where you had trouble in the past. By April 15th. Capture the queens. Then continue to use the traps as needed through summer and fall. Here’s to pleasant outdoor meals.

Additional photos and information:

Nuisance Wasps and Bees from CSU Extension

Yellowjackets and Other Social Wasps from the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program

Avoid Painful, Often Dangerous, Encounters with Yellow Jackets from the EPA

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