There's definitely something ominous about the appearance of yellowjackets and hornets. While the potential of being stung probably crosses all of our minds whenever we encounter the insects, these relatives of bumblebees and honeybees really are fascinating creatures.
Both yellowjackets and hornets are hymenopterans or, in other words, are members of the order of insects wasps, ants, and bees belong to. Most everyone has had at least one painful experience with a bee or wasp. The yellowjacket, also called a wasp or hornet, is just one of the many species from the order that will sting if provoked or are defending a nest or food source.
The yellowjacket is considered a social wasp and is differentiated from a bee by the absence of setae or hair. Further differences include the absence of pollen sacs on their hind legs, something worker honeybees possess (those balls of green or yellow pollen). Worker yellowjackets, the wasp we normally observe - as opposed to queens and drones of the species - are also leaner looking than bees and are colored with alternating bands of yellow and/or black on the abdomen.
In the animal world, yellow-and-black markings are the universally understood combination of colors that communicate, "Leave me alone!" And, for the most part, this easily observable message is well heeded. For some creatures, however, such as black bears, which frequently dig up underground wasp-nests to devour the protein-rich larvae, neither the insects' color nor painful stings matter. In these cases, the importance of nutritious food outweighs the dozens of stings their snouts and paws surely endure.
Though hard to believe for some people, yellowjackets are very beneficial insects to have around. While preferring natural foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates such as wild fruits, plant juices and nectar, in addition to consuming insect-pests that are harmful to garden vegetables and orchard fruits, late summer and autumn is also a time when these species of wasps, as their diet changes, find themselves in frequent conflict with humans.
Anyone sipping on a soft drink, for example, or having a picnic, or filling up a hummingbird feeder with sweet sugar-water during these times of year, will undoubtedly have unwanted encounters with yellowjackets and hornets. These insects are as unyielding as they come when it comes to satiating their sweet tooth.
This can be extremely frustrating, and sometimes torturous if one such angry yellowjacket decides to sting. Unlike honeybees that are equipped with barbed stingers that detach from their abdomens after use and thus can be used only once (ultimately killing the insect), yellowjackets and hornets can sting multiple times with their smooth stingers that remain attached to their bodies - another not-so-comforting difference between wasps and bees.
Such as it is, certain precautions should be considered when working or playing around sites known to harbor yellowjackets and hornets. Be careful where you walk in the woods and be mindful where your feet are placed when navigating dense vegetation and woody undergrowth.
Because a swallowed yellowjacket or hornet may possibly lead to a stung throat, which could potentially become life threatening for some people, cans or bottles of soft drinks that are open and unattended should be inspected prior to drinking. Moreover, keep the lids of garbage receptacles closed tightly at all times. Once a food source is discovered, more and more yellowjackets and hornets will come for the bounty.
Another very common relative of yellowjackets is the bald-faced hornet. If you feed hummingbirds, you probably have seen this insect at your feeders too. They're larger than yellowjackets and are mostly black in color with whitish markings. These are the species of hornet that construct the amazingly large football-shaped paper nests that hang from the branches of trees and large shrubs, and sometimes from buildings or other structures.
Bald-faced hornets are "mild" pollinators, because they do feed on the nectar of flowers from time to time. They mostly, however, feed on other insects such as flies. And like yellowjackets and other wasps, these species of hornets are colonial and, so, have a very distinct caste system.
The workers, which are infertile females, perform all the labor in the complex social system such as nest building, defending the colony, and food gathering. Queens are of course the egg-laying fertile females, while the drones are the fertile males.
Indeed, yellowjackets and hornets are beautiful insects. And while many of us don't especially care for cleaning their bodies from our hummingbird feeders, or trying to keep them from the feeders in the first place, I am nonetheless appreciative of these hard-working, attractive insects anyway. Yellowjackets and hornets, and others like them, are as interesting as they come as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com.