The Real Lives Of Yellow Jackets And How To Eliminate Them

Eastern yellow jacket cleaning itself on a leaf

Recently I published a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket.

I couldn’t agree more. This time of year yellow jackets are everywhere, flying in their distinctive back-and-forth pattern and disrupting our outdoor living. The smallest whiff of sugar and they arrive en masse, honing in on the target with a single mind. As we know only too well, kill one of them and you risk alerting the entire gang. They’ll swarm to the defense, eager to inflict pain on their prospective victims.

Which leads me to ask: Do yellow jackets have a purpose? What good are they for, anyway?


It might surprise you to know that, although they resemble bees, yellow jackets are in fact wasps. Although they have bright yellow and black markings, their slender bodies are hairless. Generally, they prefer to live in large colonies underground.

A yellow jacket collecting nectar from a flower

Both Eastern and Western yellow jackets prefer to nest in soil cavities. This may include abandoned rodent holes or tree stumps that they enlarge as they grow. And the holes can be hard to locate. Entrances tend to be very small, or roughly the size of a nickel.

Yellow jacket emerging from a nest underground

Needless to say, this can pose a threat to our routine mowing and gardening activities. At our Master Gardener demonstration garden in Maryland, we recently made a painful discovery. Hidden away in an abandoned hole adjacent to our garden was an active yellow jacket nest. A couple team members unwittingly disturbed it while digging. Each paid dearly with multiple stings.


Unlike honey bees, yellow jackets don’t die when they sting you. This allows them to sting repeatedly using a lance-like stinger equipped with little barbs. They are also known to bite, which enables them to grab hold while inserting their stinger.


Unfortunately, yes. Yellow jackets are predatory insects . They may not help pollinate, but they perform an important function that benefits our plants. They eat garden pests and help control them. As such, many consider them beneficial to agriculture.

Yellow jacket on butterfly weed


A yellow jacket diet is heavy in foods humans are nowadays told to restrict: that is, meats, sugars and carbohydrates. In mid summer when they are busy feeding their larvae, adults generally forage for food rich in protein including meats, flies, caterpillars and other insects.

However, as summer wears on and food sources begin to diminish, adults shift more towards sugary foods. These include flower nectar, tree sap and honeydew produced by aphids and scale. Unfortunately, this also includes many of the items we humans enjoy, foods like fruits, juices, beer and soft drinks, not to mention blueberry pie.

Sugars, in fact, are key to developing queens in late summer who must start next spring’s nest. They are the only members of the colony to survive and will need energy to ride out the winter.


The good news is that, with the exception of the queen, yellow jackets only live for one season. Cold weather will naturally get rid of them. If you can wait things out, worker wasps will usually be dead by the beginning of November.

Still, there are those situations that require immediate action, especially when colonies located close to houses pose a threat to family safety. In the case of our garden, the nest was situated behind one of the main visitor benches.

Following are some generally accepted methods of removal of yellow jacket nests. In all cases, it is IMPERATIVE to wait until nighttime when the wasps are back in the nest and less active. And never shine a flashlight or headlamp down into the hole while eradicating them. Yellow jackets will vigorously defend their nests and attack you in droves.

Eradicate yellow jacket nests in the evening


There are a number of registered insecticides on the market for removal of yellow jacket nests. Among them, insecticide dusts are some of the most effective. The dust is applied to the nest opening. The wasps pick up the dust on their bodies and transport it back to the nest, killing the rest of the brood.

1. Non-poisonous spray mixtures and boiling water

Non-toxic substances such as mint oil or Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap coupled with boiling water have proven effective when poured down the hole.

2. Sealing off the entrance

Not the best choice, since this often forces the wasps to chew their way to another location.

3. Throwing in some ice cubes

This may take a few applications, but eventually solved our problem at the demo garden. Amazingly, one of the team members whose arm tripled in size after she was stung  suggested this less invasive method. She arrived in the evening armed with two large bags of ice and poured them down the hole. We haven’t seen a yellow jacket since.

Have another method you’d like to recommend? I’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments below!



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