It should have been an ordinary “doing what dogs do” afternoon for Maggie Mae and Susie Q, our family dogs. Maggie was playfully exploring the backyard a few days ago, sniffing around the fence line, trying to find something of interest. Suddenly, she flipped around, tucked her tail between her legs, and quickly ran away, snapping at flying tormentors on both sides of her. It wasn’t long before Susie Q was forced to flee the scene as well.
When Maggie finally outran what was after her, she stopped and looked back at the fence with a “what was that?!” look on her face. Maggie may not have known what she’d gotten into, but I knew. She had accidentally found a yellow jacket’s nest. I’m glad she was the one to find it instead of me. The nest was below ground, as most nests are. They are often found around rotten stumps or on the sides of terraces, gullies and ditches.
Late summer into fall is typically the time of year when Extension receives numerous calls about yellow jackets, hornets and how to control them. Many folks don’t know the difference between the various types of hornets and yellow jackets we have in Georgia.
The confusion is understandable. Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are all in the same family and are all found in Georgia. They also have variable color patterns, depending on whether they are a male, a worker or a queen. To add to the confusion, many people use the terms hornet and yellow jacket interchangeably. For example, the bald-faced hornet is actually a type of yellow jacket!
In general, the term hornet is used for species that nest above ground, and the term yellow jacket is used for those that make nests in the ground.
Colonies start each spring when a single queen, who mated the previous fall starts a nest. The nest is made of horizontal combs completely surrounded by a paper envelope made of tiny bits of wood fiber that are chewed into a paper-like pulp. During the summer months, colonies rapidly increases in size and may reach several hundred workers by September. In late fall, new queens emerge from the colony, mate, and seek shelter for the winter and the old queen dies. Once winter arrives the remaining colony also perish. Wasps and hornets use a new nest every year.
Homeowners often call their Extension office after finding a hornets’ nest that is the size of a basketball. I can go ahead and tell you, a nest of size wasn’t built overnight. You’ve likely been living next to this colony all summer, and while I can sympathize with not wanting your closest neighbors to be a colony of hornets, I will also argue that if they haven’t bothered you by late summer, why worry about them now?
The best course of action is to warn your family and neighbors about the nest and avoid contact. Mark the nested tree with caution tape to remind everyone to be extra cautious. Hornets are often attracted to porch lights. If they are becoming a nuisance, turn off your porch light and only use it when necessary.
It is possible to treat and kill a wasp or hornet nest with pesticides. However, the odds of getting stung during the process are fairly high. If you leave the nest alone, your chances of getting stung are much less likely than if you try to tackle the problem yourself. The colony will die as winter approaches so leaving the colony alone late in the season is a practical solution the problem. They’re going to die soon anyway.
Remember, hornets and wasps perform a valuable service in controlling many other insects that attack cultivated and ornamental plants.
When dealing with ground-nesting yellow jackets, sometimes you have to take action — especially when you encounter them when mowing the lawn! Frequently, I am reminded of the time my mother was attacked by yellow jackets when she was mowing the lawn, and that was at least 10 years ago.
Scavenging yellow jackets are generally not aggressive (unless handled) but, they can become very aggressive as a group if their nest is threatened. Yellow jackets will vigorously pursue an intruder who threatens their nest and are generally considered the most dangerous of the social insects.
Any attempt to destroy nests should be done in the late evening, when nest activity is at a minimum. Even at night, any disturbance will result in instant activity by the colony. Work cautiously, but quickly, and wear protective clothing. Yellow jackets are attracted to light, so do not hold a flashlight while applying an insecticide to a nest.
A quick knockdown, jet-aerosol spray insecticide is preferred because yellow jackets may fly out to defend the colony. Direct the insecticide dispenser nozzle toward the nest entrance for best control. The spray compounds produce almost instant knockdown for wasps hit. Check the colony entrance the next day for activity, and reapply again if necessary.
Sometimes, the location of the ground nest will make it hard to direct insecticide into the nest’s entrance. In this case, gently apply a dust type insecticide containing the active ingredient carbaryl to the nest opening. Yellow jackets will track the dust inside the colony over the course of several days and eventually the entire colony will die.
As with all pesticides, read and follow all labeled application rates and safety precautions.
For more information about hornets and yellow jackets, search for Bulletin 1412: Management of Pest Insects In and Around the Home at pubs.caes.uga.edu or contact the Liberty County Extension office at 912-876-2133 or firstname.lastname@example.org.