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Yellow Jackets (Wasps)
Most people know and fear the yellow-and-black striped yellow jacket wasps that are common, uninvited guests to late summer picnics. Their stings are painful and for those people allergic to insect venom, they are dangerous. Many people confuse bees, which are fuzzy and only feed on flower nectar, with wasps, which have shiny bodies and are predators. What most people don’t realize is that yellow jackets capture enormous numbers of flies, caterpillars and other insects to feed their young. They have been seen bringing in more than 225 flies an hour to a single nest; one study found that over a three day period, just two wasps collected 20 grams of imported cabbageworms. It is usually only in late summer, when their populations are at their peak and wasps are attracted to plants with ripening fruit or aphid honeydew deposits on the leaves that most conflicts arise between humans and yellow jackets. Although they are touchy defenders of their nests, most stings are a result of accidentally trapping or pinching a wasp.
In spring, the mated queen wasp crawls out of her overwintering shelter, fills herself on flower nectar and insects and then builds a nest in a hole in the ground, inside a wall cavity, or hanging from a branch or the eaves of a building. She chews up plant fibers and weathered wood to make a grey papery pulp for the first egg cells. The queen rears this first brood herself, foraging for food and feeding the larvae. In about a month these larvae become adult worker-daughters and take over cleaning, building and feeding chores for the next generation. The wasp population grows and the nest expands all season as the workers add new layers of cells. In late summer the queen stops laying eggs and the last of the brood matures. Among the last generation in late summer are both queens and males that develop in special cells. When they emerge, they mate and the queen crawls away into a hiding place under bark, in an old stump or under litter to spend the winter. The workers and males all die before winter; the nest falls apart and is not reused next year.