Yellowjacket wasps (Vespula sp.) are found throughout Ohio and all of North America. The commonly seen workers are .5 inches long and blocky with alternating black and yellow bands on their abdomens. Queens are larger at .75 inches. Yellowjackets have chewing-lapping mouths. Typical foods include insects, fruit, garbage, nectar, carrion, and tree sap.
Workers are sometimes confused with honeybees, especially when flying in and out of nests. However, unlike the honeybee, yellowjackets do not have brown hair or legs that can be used to carry pollen. Yellowjackets have a stinger that they can use repeatedly. Honeybees can only sting once.
There are three species of yellowjacket wasps in Ohio. The common (V. vulgaris), Eastern [or European] (V. maculifrons) and German (V. germanica). German yellowjackets were introduced into Ohio in 1975. They are bolder and more aggressive than the other two species and are now considered the dominant species in Ohio. German yellowjackets make papery, gray soccer or football shaped nests, which are usually attached to structures. Eastern and common yellowjackets build similar nests, but they are tan and usually underground.
Yellowjackets are social wasps, living in large colonies of a queen, males and workers. Their nests are made from wood fiber chewed into a paper-like pulp. Typical habitat includes meadows, gardens; hedges; forest edges with hollow logs, stumps; under bark; leaf litter; soil cavities; and human-made structures. They can be found in trees, shrubs, in the ground, mouse burrows or a number of man-made structures.
The colonies are annual, meaning that they will die during the freezing temperatures of November and December. It is only the fertilized queen that survives in a protective place. She will emerge in the spring and build a small nest to in which to place her eggs. After they hatch, the larvae become either males or non-breeding female workers. The sole responsibility of males is to mate with the queen. Afterward, the males soon die. It is the workers who begin to expand the size of the nest, look for food, defend the colony, and care for the queen and her colony. A colony can quickly expand to a nest with 10,000 - 15,000 cells and include 4,000- 5,000 workers by August or September.
It is at this time, August-October, that people in Ohio notice yellowjackets the most. Their populations have grown and they begin to look for food. Unfortunately, they look toward humans. Not toward humans themselves, but picnics, cookouts, campsites, garbage cans, outdoor restaurants, fairs and sporting events. All of these have one thing in common, food, hot dogs, soda, ripe fruit, vegetables, and hamburgers, yellowjacket paradise. Although yellowjackets are beneficial to agriculture because they feed on harmful flies and caterpillars, it is their aggressiveness around food items and willingness to sting that causes concern.
It is advisable to avoid yellowjackets if possible. There are some simple methods of reducing a confrontation with the wasps. Keep food, beverages and garbage covered at all times when outside. Try to avoid wearing sweet smelling deodorants, perfumes or sunscreens; avoid shiny jewelry and bright colored or flower-print clothing.
In the event that you have one or more yellowjackets around you, stay calm and walk slowly away. Do not strike or crush wasps against your body. Wasp venom contains an alarm producing chemical. When you hit a wasp, the chemical is released into the air, signaling other wasps to come and sting.
If you are stung, and you are not allergic to the venom, a common household remedy is to place some meat tenderizer, mixed with water into a paste, on the sting to help reduce the pain. Antihistamine ointments and tablets will also help. However, if you are allergic, seek medical attention immediately or keep a medical kit, which your doctor has prescribed, on hand such as antihistamines or epinephrine (adrenalin) injections.
Contact the Department of Agriculture or your county Extension Office for information on controlling wasps.