2007 May 19

After a long strech of arachnids here, I think it’s time to get back to insects. This one we found on the kitchen window. She’s evidently a common yellowjacket, Vespula vulgaris


Given the time of year, she’s certainly a queen yellowjacket that was looking for someplace to establish a nest. I quieted her down for photography by putting her in the refrigerator for a bit, she then sat still for several minutes until she warmed back up again. Just for grins, here’s a closeup of her head:


Isn’t she a beauty? You may note a triangle of three dots in the middle of her forehead, those are her ocelli, or supplementary eyes. They don’t image (the big compound eyes are used for that), but they are apparently used for horizon-detection to keep her oriented in flight.

Yellowjackets have a reputation for being inclined to sting, but I find them to be pretty innocuous unless someone is messing around their nest. This queen didn’t even have a nest to defend yet, so she was pretty mellow. I’m sure that she’d have stung me if I’d started swatting at her or something, but just being nudged into a petri dish and refrigerated didn’t disturb her in the least.

The normal yellowjacket lifecycle goes like this: In spring, a queen establishes a nest, and lays a few eggs that she raises herself. These grow up to be sterile workers, and once they are old enough to take over foraging, the queen devotes herself to egg-laying. The workers forage for other insects (mainly caterpillars) and sugars. At the end of the summer, when the nest is getting pretty large and populous, the last generation of yellowjackets is young queens and males. The queens mate, then go off to hibernate, and the nest becomes abandoned as the workers and males die off. The nests then usually get torn apart by squirrels and mice. Any large nest that you find in the spring will be abandoned, so they aren’t anything that needs to be worried about. Large nests in the fall, on the other hand, shouldn’t be messed with.

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