Yellow Jackets

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I love nearly all the creatures that inhabit our planet. For me a banana slug is the epitome of grace and form. The naked head of a turkey vulture excites me like that of no other bird. And even the lowly opossum has a kind of inner beauty that I find touching.

But as a card-carrying naturalist I must reluctantly confess a deep-seated dislike for yellow jackets.

I assume this antagonism dates from my early childhood. As a wee lad of five, I ventured too close to a hive and was promptly attacked and repeatedly stung in the ear and head. As a teenager, I would often push the lawn mower over yellow jacket nests and get stung. And once while I was riding my motorcycle a yellow jacket flew into my mouth and stung my tongue. I grew to hate them.

This late summer there have been a lot of yellow jackets, and it is not your imagination. This is one of the worst years ever. In the Sierra Nevada the density is one yellow jacket per square meter and people have been driven out of campgrounds by these ferocious insects. No one is quite certain why there are so many yellow jackets this year. Is it just some periodic natural cycle? Or maybe climate change?

Unlike honey bees, yellow jackets sometimes sting without provocation. I've seen them just land on a hand and zap the person. As if this weren't bad enough they then release a chemical that attracts all of the other yellow jackets in the neighborhood.


So what good are these little beasts? What role do they play in the natural scheme of things? Well, they eat nearly everything including rotten meat and Coca-Colas. So I guess they act as scavengers keeping the world a bit tidier and reminding us to pick up after ourselves.

Fortunately there are a few natural predators that help limit the population. Some birds will eat a few and western toads will sit outside the nest and snag them as they fly out. But the most effective control are the striped skunks. These nocturnal predators dig out entire nests and consume the larvae, eggs and even the adults. How they tolerate the stings is a mystery to me, but I am sure glad they do.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.