Doni’s Cautionary Tale # 5: Expert Advice Follows Yellowjacket Attack


Yellowjacket photo by Jack Kelly Clark from the University of California IPM Project.

A few weeks ago I was attacked by a swarm of yellowjackets while putting something away in a friend’s old garage.

Before that day, I wasn’t one of those those people who’d feared bees or other stinging creatures, so when I walked into the garage and saw the air filled with what I initially thought were honeybees, I stopped and watched, curious if there was a hive nearby.

That was my last rational thought before the winged insects suddenly set upon me, flying under my shirt, where they had a field day. They stung in all the soft places: my stomach, my waist, under my arms, and they even got under my bra, where they did the most dramatic damage. I was left with large, puffy, painful, itchy bites that took about five days to calm down, and several more days before the bites healed.

I killed one wasp and took a good look at it. It wasn’t a bee. I checked online and compared the dead stinging soldier to other insects and discovered that the culprits were yellowjackets.

I learned that yellowjackets – unlike honey bees, that die after one sting –  can sting multiple times.

I learned that when yellowjackets attack, they release a scent to summon their fellow yellowjackets to the battlefield. Also, they are excited to an even more frenzied state by sudden movements, like flailing and running, which explains why they found me so extra irresistible.

So that you might benefit from my misfortune, I sought professional advice from John Albright, a biologist and public information specialist at Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District in Redding. Lucky for us, it turns out Albright is a yellowjacket expert.

Today we talk with him to learn more.

The water jug near John Albright's right shoulder contains nearly 70,000 yellowjackets preserved in alcohol.  These were caught in Enterprise Park in Redding during the yellowjacket control experiment in the summer of 1999.

The water jug near John Albright’s right shoulder contains nearly 70,000 yellowjackets preserved in alcohol. These were caught in Enterprise Park in Redding during the yellowjacket control experiment in the summer of 1999.

Q: Welcome, John, to A News Cafe.com, and thanks so much for talking with us. First, I know you’re a scientific guy, but in layperson’s terms, can you explain the difference between a yellowjacket, honeybee and wasp, maybe in terms of their stinging habits?

The reason I ask is I was attacked by some yellowjackets recently in an old garage. I narrowed down their identity from one I killed. At first I thought they were honeybees, and by the time I noticed that they seemed rather agitated, they had moved in for attack, going immediately under my shirt and delivering several stings.

A: To understand why you or anybody gets stung it is helpful to know how yellowjackets and other stinging insects live.

Bees, wasps, hornets (yellowjackets) and ants are all somewhat closely related insects with a lot of similarities in their behavior.  Many, but not all of the types of insects within this group (order), are social insects, meaning that they live together in large family groups (colonies, hives, nests, etc.).

Within those social groups they work together to collect and store food, protect one another and rear young. Also, in many cases, there is only one breeding female (queen) within the group, who is the mother of all the individuals in the colony. This way of cooperative living makes the individuals very interdependent on one another and completely devoted to the maintenance and protection of the family group (colony, hive, whatever) for survival and reproduction.

Not all social insects have a painful defensive sting, though many do.  For those that do, they will pretty much always sting people or other large animals in defense of their colony, sometimes sting in defense of themselves (as when you step on a bee or wasp barefoot), and almost never sting for any other reason.

Since there are a number of large animals such as bears and skunks that like to feed on social insect colonies (much easier than eating one insect at a time), most stinging social insects are hard-wired to sting any large animal that gets too close to their colony. That’s what you did, and that’s why you got stung.

The yellowjackets were so aggressive because they wanted you to go away from their nest, which is the source of their survival, which you did.

If those same yellowjackets had encountered you anywhere else, like in your garden as foraging individuals, they would have ignored you since you are not a threat to their colony. This would be true whether it was a bee, wasp, fire ant, hornet or any other social stinging insect.

Q: So, I was near their nest, and they attacked because the yellowjackets considered me a threat. You can bet that in the future, when I see so many yellowjackets in one area, I’ll assume a nest is nearby, and leave.

Before we go on, I’m curious about something as a point of clarification, John. Are yellowjackets what we laypeople might commonly refer to as  “meat bees”?

A: Meat bees (misnomer) and yellowjackets (correctly identified) are the same thing. Yellowjackets are small yellow and black hornets. Hornets and other wasps are an enormously diverse group of predatory or parasitic, carnivorous insects.

For this reason, in addition to stinging for defense, wasps and hornets will sting other insects and small critters to kill or immobilize them as prey. On occasion wasps and hornets will feed on nectar and other plant juices as an energy source as well. Sugary drinks, such as soda are an unfortunate acceptable analogue to these, which sometimes brings yellowjackets to soda cans. This can bring them into contact with our mouths, which causes them to feel threatened, which sometimes leads to very painful stings.

I grew up calling yellow paper wasps “yellowjackets”, which is a misnomer that I picked up from my parents. I think this is some sort of a Midwest colloquialism. This is the problem with common names, which is why biologists prefer scientific names (only one name per insect type) to common names which are highly variable.

As you noticed the yellowjackets are shaped very much like honeybees. Their nests are made out of paper that they manufacture by chewing wood into pulp. The nests are arranged in a roughly spherical shape that is surrounded by a thin paper outer envelope if the nest is in an exposed location. Yellowjackets and other hornets have large colonies that often have thousands of individuals.

Paper wasps, mud daubers and other non-hornet social wasp species tend to have very long thin bodies that are pinched off in the middle (thread-waste) and long spindly legs. The types of paper wasps that we have in northern California are yellow and brown or yellow and black, which is why some people refer to them as yellowjackets.

yellowjacket nest

Paper wasps have inverted, umbrella-shaped nests.

Paper wasps make paper nests shaped like inverted umbrellas with no outer paper envelope, which hang from a short stem under eaves and in other sheltered locations.  Generally the colonies of these types of wasps do not have more than a few dozen individuals per nest.

All of the thousands of types of social and non-social wasps, including yellowjackets and other hornets, are far more closely related evolutionarily and genetically to each other than they are to any types of bees. Bees are similar to wasps and other hornets in many ways, but feed exclusively on plant byproducts such as nectar, sugary juices and pollen.

Since true bees don’t actually eat meat, the term “meat bees” is not only a misnomer, but a bit of an oxymoron.

Q: I’m glad you cleared that up. I promise to never use the term “meat bee” again.

So what you’re saying is the way the yellowjackets behaved that day in the garage was normal, and almost expected.

A: This was very typical behavior.  All other social stinging insects will sting for the same reason (defense of the colony). Other social and non-social venomous critters such as solitary wasps, bees, scorpions and spiders will bite or sting to the extent that they are able if they sense a direct threat to themselves.

Q: Can you give examples of other kinds of attacks that people or animals sometimes suffer by not just yellowjackets, but other stinging creatures?

This can happen if you pick them up, swat at them or step or lie down on them. Also, as previously alluded to, venomous critters sometimes bite or sting to kill or immobilize prey, but this is not why they bite or sting people. Stinging insects are not naturally “mean” and will not sting randomly without some sort of provocation.

Q: You’ll understand if it takes me a while before I don’t see yellowjackets as mean, but I’ll work on that. What kinds of other situations might inadvertently provoke an attack?

A: Biting or stinging critters will not just “attack” –  unless they sense a threat to themselves or their family group (if they are social).  If you are not doing anything (that you know of) and are still being attacked by some sort of stinging insect or group of them, you are almost always near a nest of some sort.

One exception to this could be if another animal, such as your dog or some wild animal you didn’t see, got near to a social insect colony and riled up its occupants just before you came to be at some point nearby.

Q: When under attack, what’s the best reaction?

A: You cannot reason with them. All they want is for you to go away, so go away.  Humor them. Whatever direction you are walking, turn around 180 degrees and walk quickly the opposite way in a straight line.  Do not wave your arms or run in circles, as this just makes you look more threatening to them, which will only make them more defensive.

Q: Yes, that makes sense now.

John, is it true that the yellowjackets actually signal to each other during an attack?

A: Generally, social insects have a lot of chemicals (pheromones) that they emit to communicate with one another by smell (sort of). These are used to keep order within the colony. Some stimulate individuals to leave and forage, some provide trails to food, some cause the queen to lay or stop laying eggs, etc.

Since the colonies tend to work cooperatively, this includes their reaction in defending against attacks. If an individual in a colony perceives a threat they will give off a pheromone that notifies the others that an attack is imminent. The longer you hang around, the more individuals will begin giving off pheromones and the greater their defensive reaction will be.

Some stinging insects deposit a little bit of alarm pheromone on your skin as they are stinging, which will attract other individuals to that spot. This explains why, when you were attacked, a number of them got under your shirt. They were following the pheromones of the first individual that stung you there.

Q: What’s the best way to avoid an encounter with these stinging insects?

A: Unfortunately, yellowjackets, hornets, wasps and bees in the wild generally try very hard to hide their nests, which makes it very difficult to predict where you will encounter them.  This also means that you usually have to get pretty close to them before they will make their presence known.

Favorite nesting places that we need to worry about, especially with yellowjackets, are sheltered areas near the ground such as hollow stumps, logs and fallen tree trunks, as well as voids under sheds, decks and houses.

Sadly, sometimes yellowjackets will use hollowed out areas like abandoned gopher holes as sites for nest building that could be just about anywhere, even out in the open. On rare occasions they will hang nests out in the open on tree limbs. These are more or less spherical and vary in size from about like a softball (for yellowjackets) to basketball-sized for bald faced hornets.

In any case, always be careful when opening sprinkler valve boxes or disturbing piles of firewood or other debris that has sat undisturbed for a long period of time.  Don’t reach into dark areas outside with bare hands and keep an eye out for lots of stinging insects of one kind coming and going from a single area, as this is highly indicative of the presence of a nest.

Q: And let’s say we do find a nest, what’s the best course of action?

A: Finding the nest is the hard part. Stinging social insects must be controlled by destroying the nest in some fashion. Killing individual stinging insects as they fly around is pointless and futile as a means of control. There are local, professional pest control companies that will control stinging insects if their nest locations are known. Finding unknown nest locations can be an extremely time consuming, frustrating and likely fruitless endeavor, so it might be hard to find a company that will do that.

If you are comfortable with doing your own pest control around the home, products are available in home and garden centers for this purpose and they are labeled as such. I am not licensed to legally give pesticide recommendations or describe control techniques, but people selling these products generally can help you. Detailed instructions for safe and effective use are always found on the labels of all pesticides by law. Always follow the instructions on pesticide labels to the letter.  Failure to do that is not only risky, but violates federal law.

Another very good option is to simply avoid the area near the nest, if you can.  Yellowjackets feed on other insect pests, which technically makes them a beneficial insect when they are foraging in your yard.

Q: I can see how my jumbo can of wasp spray would have been useless during my attack. Now, if I knew I had a nest on my property, I’d call a professional to take care of it.

What else should we know?

A: Allergic reactions to stings are a far greater health risk than the pain and minor swelling caused by the sting itself. Pain and swelling are normal reactions at the sting site, but other symptoms may be warning signs of severe allergic reaction to the venom in the sting (anaphylaxis) which can be medically serious or even fatal. It is common, even normal, that people who have not previously shown allergic symptoms to insect stings can become sensitized to any one of the substances found in the different chemical cocktails that make up the venom of different stinging creatures.

If you are stung and experience symptoms that are not at the sting site, such as dizziness, tingling around the face, tightening of the throat, sweating, development of a widespread rash, confusion or anything else that just seems body-wide and strange — seek immediate medical attention. Have someone else transport you to a medical facility. Do not try to transport yourself as anaphylaxis often leads to unconsciousness, which will totally take away your control of the situation and make matters much worse.

All terrific, super-interesting advice and information, John. Thanks so much for taking the time to so thoroughly answer my questions and educate us about yellowjackets and other stinging creatures. You’re a wealth of information and we appreciate you.

About John Albright: He’s a Redding resident and has lived in Redding more or less steadily since 1968. He is a graduate of Nova High, Shasta High, Shasta College and CSU, Chico, where he obtained a Bachelor of Sciences degree in microbiology with a chemistry minor. John worked seasonally while attending college for the U.S. Forest Service where stinging insects were a common hazard of the job.

Following graduation from CSU, Chico, he worked for eight years with the Shasta County Department of Agriculture Weights and Measures, beginning in 1989.  One of his main duties at that agency was apiary (beekeeping) inspection. This gave him a great deal of hands-on experience with stinging insects and the science behind their behavior.

In 1997 John was hired by the Shasta Mosquito and Vector Control District as a Biologist and Public Information Specialist. One of the first projects that John worked on there was an experiment to test the feasibility for the District to undertake control of yellowjackets in the newly created Enterprise Park. John is still employed by Shasta MVCD as a Vector Ecologist.  As such he maintains an interest and high degree of knowledge and education about stinging insects, mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and other creatures in nature that pose a threat to public health.


Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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