Michael Ellis: Yellow Jackets

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There isn’t much about the natural world that doesn’t spark wonder in Michael Ellis, but there’s one creature he can’t abide.

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 and see-through nostrils 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. Sorry.

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. Over and over. As a teen-ager I would often push the lawn mower over yellow jacket nests and get stung. They often build their paper nests underground in abandoned gopher holes. 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 summer there have been a lot of yellow jackets, for some reason, in my backyard. Unlike our useful 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.

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So what good are these little beasts, besides making more yellow jackets? What role do they play in the natural scheme of things? Well, they eat nearly everything including rotten carcasses and spilled soft drinks. So 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 to limit the population. Birds like black phoebes will eat a few and western toads will sit outside the hive and snag them as they fly out.

But one of the most effective controls are 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 glad they do. I wish I had one of these smelly mammals in my backyard. But maybe just for a couple of nights.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist. He lives in Santa Rosa.