Wild Thing: Unfriendly Neighbors
Despite their yellow jackets, these wasps aren’t dressed for a party.
By Meredith Holdsworth
Texas hunters know that cleaning out the blind for the upcoming season can mean an encounter with venomous six-legged squatters that took up residence over the spring and summer. Hunting blinds and other outdoor structures represent ideal sites for wasps and yellow jackets to construct nests protected from the elements. While these insects have lived peacefully in relative isolation for several months, coexistence with humans in cramped quarters can become an issue.
Southern yellow jackets (Vespula squamosa) usually construct their nests in rodent burrows but may construct aerial nests in protected spots such as the wall voids of houses. They are members of a family that includes eastern yellow jackets, paper wasps, hornets and mud daubers. Yellow jackets are about a half-inch long, with clear wings. They have smooth, shiny black bodies with yellow markings on the head, thorax and abdomen.
Yellow jackets have characteristic yellow markings on the head, thorax and abdomen.
The diet of adult yellow jackets consists largely of sugars they derive from flower nectar or tree sap. They are not, however, above scavenging from human picnics and trash receptacles for sweet rewards. Yellow jackets will also prey on other insects to meet the protein needs of their growing larvae.
Female yellow jackets are armed with a stinger that can deliver venom to any would-be attacker. While painful, their stings are not typically life-threatening. A small percentage of the population is allergic to venomous insect stings, so pay close attention to symptoms that might appear after being stung. Like all other native bees and wasps in Texas, yellow jackets can sting multiple times. Only the European honeybee is limited to delivering a single sting that results in the insect’s own death.
Yellow jacket mouthparts are used for chewing plant fibers that form the paper-like structure of their nests. In Texas, some colonies have been known to survive for several years and have been reported to grow to six feet in diameter. In both aerial and underground sites, nests are spherical and consist of a number of round combs, surrounded by an outer cover.
A colony of yellow jackets is founded in the spring by a single queen that spent the previous winter in hibernation. For the first part of spring, the queen feeds on other insects and nectar until she is ready to lay eggs. After finding a suitable nesting site, the queen constructs a 25- to 40-cell nest and lays eggs that will develop into her first batch of daughter workers.
Once her first workers mature, the queen will no longer leave the nest. The new workers forage for food and continue to build the nest. Some nests can contain up to 4,000 workers. Later in the year, the queen will lay eggs that develop into new queens and males that leave the nest and mate.
The males perish with the coming of winter, while the new queens search out safe, secure spots to hibernate till the following spring, when the whole process repeats itself. The old queen and all her workers die off, leaving only the remains of their papery domicile.
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page