Sunday, August 2, 2009

This one is for Caleb---YellowJackets mistaken identity

(Yellow-Jacket Queen)

When I heard about young Caleb's unfortunate encounter with a nest of yellow-jackets I couldn't help but feel sympathy for his experience. His father said he had over a dozen stings and now is very uncomfortable being near any bees, especially the ones near their bird feeders. I can certainly understand how anyone would feel this way after having such a bad experience. His father asked me if I would post an entry about Yellow-Jackets and I am very happy to do so. Caleb my hope is that after you read this you will have a little better understanding as to why those wasps were so angry with you and what prompted them to sting so viciously.
Eastern yellow-jackets belong to a family of wasps called Vespidae, also within this family are the paper wasps. Like paper wasps, yellow-jackets build a papery nest out of chewed up bits of wood and saliva. These nests are most generally found underground, but can also be found in hollow trees or even in hay piles as the one pictured here. In the spring, bred females become active as soon as the weather begins to warm. She will seek a suitable nesting site and begin construction of her new home. She will lay eggs in small chambers (cells) within the nest and feed these young chewed up bits of insects herself. Once these young have grown to adulthood, they will take over the care of the queens offspring, and the queens sole purpose will be to lay eggs. These new wasps are referred to as the workers and their job is to not only care for all their siblings, but to expand the nest and to defend it. It was this defensive nature that Caleb learned about up close and personal. Yellow-Jackets give off a pheromone (chemical perfume) that alerts other members of the hive when danger is near. When one yellow-jacket is alerted, it isn't long before many are also on the defensive. If you happen to wonder too close to their hive they perceive this as a threat and attack accordingly. They are estimated to be responsible for over half of all stings from any wasp or bee. Although it is truly nothing personal, they are doing what nature designed them to do, defend their queen, their siblings and their home. Much like a father would do, if someone threatened his family or home. While he may not possess a stinger on his rear end, he certainly would use whatever was at his disposal if he thought there was a threat to his family or home. (Yellow-Jacket female foraging)

Each hive can contain up to 5,000 members, which sounds like a lot, but really that is a small hive when you consider that honey bees will have up to 50,000-60,000 members.
Late in the summer the male yellow-jackets appear on the scene and begin looking for young females with which to mate. After mating, and when cold weather begins to set in all in the hive will perish except for the bred females. These females are destined to be next years queens. They will spend the winter months in hiding, under leaf litter or in hollow trees.
(Yellow-Jacket Hive)

Fortunately for us Yellow-Jackets aren't always so aggressive, usually while out foraging for food they are docile. If provoked they will defend themselves, and can sting repeatedly. They are attracted to sweet substances and are often encountered at ball games, picnics, etc., where pop and other sweet drinks are plentiful. They are commonly seen crawling all over pop cans or edges of cups sipping up the sugary treats. Because of their resemblance to honey bees, many people mistakenly refer to them as honey bees. It would be very unlikely to encounter a honey bee on your pop can, they instead prefer flower nectar and pollen. Honey bees often get a bad rap because of the yellow-jackets. One thing to remember is: Yellow-Jackets are wasps, Honey Bees are bees. Honey bees can only sting once then they die, not so with yellow-jackets. Honey bees have fur, whereas yellow-jackets are smooth. Honey bees are milder in temperament and aren't as easily provoked. Yellow-jackets are more easily irritated. Another bee that is often mistaken for yellow-jackets is the cuckoo bee, they mimic yellow-jackets so closely it would be very hard to tell the difference. I assume this extreme mimicry offers them protection, after all if you look like a big bad mean wasp, not much will mess with you.

(Cuckoo Bee) (Honey Bee)

Caleb, I hope this helps you better understand these little wasps. Try to not be afraid, the ones that are at your bird feeders are most likely not going to cause you any harm. They are merely looking for something to feed either themselves or their younger siblings. Getting too close to the nest is never a good thing as you found out, but I hope you don't let it discourage you from respecting these amazing insects. While they do tend to be aggressive by nature, they are beneficial in respect to all the insect pests they kill and use to feed their offspring.

1.) Queen yellow-jacket belongs to Steve Scott
2.) Female yellow-jacket nectaring was taken from
3.) Yellow-Jacket hive in hay was taken from
4.) The cuckoo wasp image belongs to Steve Scott
5.) Honey Bee on Dandelion is mine.


  1. A very informative post.

    Mowing over a yellow jacket nest is not a fun experience.

  2. Thank you Marvin, I can imagine it wouldn't be, and it seems they always build right where we DO NOT want them.

  3. Thanks so much for the information! I am Caleb's mom and when my husband told me about your post I got right on and read it. Caleb is a bright little boy who is like a little sponge taking in information! This will help him understand why he was attacked, and the photos will help him to know what to look for in the future! I will tease him that HE is the sweet substance they were looking for and he will NOT think that is cool!:) Thanks again!

  4. Nice to meet you Caleb's mom, and you are very welcome. I know his experience must have been frightening, and I would hate to hear that it caused him a lifetime of fear of anything that stings. I agree, it had to be how sweet he was, after all they LOVE sugar!

  5. Caleb's Dad, You are very welcome and I very much enjoyed researching this article and writing about, I hope this helps Caleb.I read your comment and somehow lost it, I must have accidentally deleted it and I apologize. I will be curious to know what Caleb thinks after reading about the yellow jackets.

  6. Caleb was surprised to hear that Yellow Jackets are responsible for more than half of all bee stings and was wondering if you have ever been stung while taking pictures of bugs.

  7. Caleb---I have been very fortunate and I have not had any serious stings or bites while taking pictures. I usually find that as long as I am away from their hives they are calm and usually not prone to sting. One insects does give me a hard time though, and that is ants. We have some crazy little red ants that bite me and won't let go! I have to pull them off me. Then the little buggers whip their back end around and spray me with formic acid! They are not nice, or perhaps they just don't like me...LOL. Once in Florida I stepped in a Fire Ant mound, OUCH!!!! that hurt terribly. I have never had such an unfortunate incident happen to me as happened to you, and I feel for you. You are very brave to have endured something so terrible. I hope that you don't let it make you afraid of stinging insects, they really are just doing what God and Mother Nature designed them to do. If you have any other questions please feel free to ask, or if there are any other insects you are curious about, just ask and I will try and post about them.

  8. Caleb's dad, my school principal (read boss), just e-mailed me about this piece you did for Caleb. I am so impressed, not only that you would take so much time and care to stem Caleb's fears, but also that you have developed such an incredible blog about insects. I am going to bookmark this for our school library and pass it along to our science teachers, if Caleb's dad hasn't already. I also intend to use your blog to show my students and staff what a powerful resource a blog can be. You may be an amateur photographer and office manager, but you are definitely a born teacher at heart. Thank you for providing one of the most informative blogspots I've encountered. I hope that I can find your book when it comes out - would you consider moving to Ohio and writing an insect guide for our kids?

  9. McLibrarian--your kind words made me cry. Thank you so much. I always wanted to be a teacher, but it just wasn't in the stars for me. So I do the next best thing, I teach through my volunteer work. I am privileged to work with many wonderful children with a single goal learn about nature. I am honored that you would want to feature my blog as a resource for your school. I would love to move to Ohio...I would be up for the adventure, but unfortunately my husbands roots run deep..LOL. Tell you what, if I get this book published (which is proving to be a challenge) I will mail your school one.

  10. There are all kinds of ways to be a teacher and doing it for the love of children is certainly the best.

    Good luck with that book! I know it will be a winner. I'll be watching for it!

  11. Thank you so much, I will definitely send you a copy.

  12. McLibrarian----my boss is from Ohio, near Akron. We were wondering what part of Ohio your school is at.

  13. Our school is in the central part of Ohio, near Mt. Vernon. I got my master's degree from Kent State and I'm taking a summer class there now. I'll bet your boss will know where Kent State is.