Yellowjacket and Blackjacket

2011 September 24

In last week’s posting, what I thought was a yellowjacket turned out to be something else, but I didn’t realize this until after writing a bunch of stuff that was specific to yellowjackets. So, for this week’s post, I specifically went out looking for some actual specimens of the real thing. The goldenrod that grows alongside the road is very attractive to all manner of bees and wasps in the fall, so on August 22, 2011 I went to check them out. And I did find this black and yellow one –

And this black and white one –

For the black-and-white one, I know it sounds weird to call something a “yellowjacket” when it doesn’t have any yellow on it, but as we’ll see in a minute, almost all of its closest relatives do have yellow on them. Besides, you can see a lot of goldenrod pollen stuck to its hairs, so it is wearing a yellow jacket of sorts.

Using the ID keys at The Biological Survey of Canada, the shape of the yellow one’s head near the mandibles appears to place it in the Dolichovespula genus, while the black and white one looks more like a member of the Vespula genus.

To get down to species, let’s look at the abdomen coloration. The yellow one has stripes that are crenellated in a distinctive fashion:

and it looks to be the Common Aerial Yellowjacket, Dolichovespula arenaria. These are some of the wasps that make those classic acorn-shaped paper nests with a hole in the bottom, and that are commonly seen hanging from eaves or tree branches.

As for the black and white one:

there is really only one northern Vespula species that has white stripes on a black body instead of yellow stripes, so I think it is the Blackjacket, Vespula consobrina. These tend to live in forested areas, and build their nests in small cavities like old mouse burrows.

I think that both of these specimens are actually males: they hold their antennae out straight and have a distinct curl at the ends, and their abdomens are both seven segments long (female workers would have less curly antennae held with a “kink” near the base, and only six abdominal segments). Which means that I was never in the slightest danger of being stung while collecting these, because male wasps don’t have stingers.

I expect that what happens with the male wasps is this: they are raised up in late summer, and then when they mature they are booted out of the nest. They then wander about among the flowers, lonely as a cloud, finding enough nectar to get by on. Eventually, the nests also raise up a bunch of young queens for next year, and then they all leave the nest to wander among the flowers. Where they finally meet up with the fellows and mate. The males then all die.

The females, on the other hand, are another story. After mating, they find a place to hibernate, and then come spring they come out and start new nests. Initially there will just be the queen, a tiny nest, and a few grubs that she feeds, but once the grubs mature they take over the nest-building and grub-feeding activities while she settles down to some serious egg production.

Once the nest is a going concern, yellowjackets and their relatives are quick to sting in self-defense, and are responsible for a large fraction of the bad reputation of stinging insects. They are pretty enthusiastic predators, particularly in spring and early summer, when they go after all manner of meat (particularly caterpillars). One point here is that the meat isn’t food for the adults – they mostly go after things like flower nectar to feed themselves. It’s the growing brood that they are all raising that need the meat. So, during the summer when they are raising brood, yellowjackets spend most of their time murdering the caterpillar population and don’t really bother people much. Unless a person gets too close to the actual nest, in which case, watch out![1].

But, in the late summer and fall, the yellowjackets no longer have brood to raise, and their diet changes because now they are mostly feeding themselves. They switch focus to sugars, which the new queens need in order to fatten up to make it through the winter. So, just before they go into hibernation the female yellowjackets are attracted to all manner of sweet liquids, like flower nectar (not a problem), fruit juices, and soda pop (big problem!). For those last two, there is a good possibility that you, the innocent bystander, are drinking it already, and may not notice the wasp that has crawled into your juice bottle or soft drink can. Giving you an excellent opportunity to get a mouthful of irate yellowjacket that’s likely to pop you right in a sensitive spot, like your lip or tongue. Which doesn’t make anybody happy.

Speaking of which, we were just making cider [2] last weekend (Sept. 17), and within an hour we got some yellowjackets sniffing around. One of them was just nosing around the apple crusher where I could snag it in a jar;

and the other fell into Rosie’s cup of cider. She said, “Daddy, there’s a bug in my juice.”

These look to both be females (6 abdominal segments). That second one wasn’t dead, by the way. While I was taking pictures, she would twitch every time the camera flash went off. She finally woke up and charged me, staggering drunkenly forward until she fell off the edge of the table.

I guess yellowjackets are mean drunks.

[1] A lot of yellowjacket species like to build their nests in cavities, like hollow logs and openings into the roofs and walls of buildings. Many years ago, when we still lived in town, Sandy walked out of the house, stepped off of the porch, and suddenly a yellowjacket flew out and popped her on the earlobe. Very painful, and she was not happy about it. So she told me, and we went out and saw that they were coming and going through a little crack between the porch roof and the wall of the house. Now, I’m willing to tolerate a lot of things as long as they are willing to tolerate me, but stinging without provocation was too much. So I bought a can of wasp and hornet killer, waited until evening when they would all be at home, and then climbed up to the hole, gave them a good solid shot, and then vacated the area before dying wasps could boil out after me (which took about 5 seconds. If you try this, make sure that your retreat route is clear, so that you can get out in good order without hurting yourself). Then, after activity had died down, I went back to the hole and let them have it until the can was empty. Aaaand, that was that. We never saw another yellowjacket out of that hole.

[2] We have a cider press that we built ourselves, a big one that can squeeze juice out of about three bushels of apples per batch. So, a lot of our friends come over regularly to squeeze apples that they either bring themselves, or that they collect from the large surplus of feral apples that we usually have. The press gets used pretty heavily for most of the month of September and part of October, and some years we make as much as 100 gallons of cider. As a result, we spend a lot of time in the yard with open containers of apple juice and piles of apple mash. This draws a lot of yellowjackets to come in for a drink, and they often fall into the jugs we are putting the cider into. By experiment, we found that if we leave the yellowjackets in there, the cider ferments and gets alcoholic a lot faster than it does if no wasp gets into it. Which reminds me of this bit from near the end of Clifford Simak’s teleportation-and-time-travel novel, “The Goblin Reservation”:

(Context: Mr. O’Toole is a goblin, one of the “little folk” from Ireland. He is incensed with a suggestion by the humans that they could help him increase production of Sweet October Ale. Oop is an educated Neanderthal, who makes a point of being tactless because people expect it of him.)

Mr. O’Toole bounded up and down in wrath. “And the bugs!” he shouted. “What about the bugs? Exclude them from the ale I know you would when it was brewing! All nasty sanitary! To make October ale, bugs you must have falling into it, and all other matters of great uncleanliness, or the flavor you will miss!”

“We’ll put in bugs,” said Oop. “We’ll go out and catch a bucket full of them and dump them into it.”

The O’Toole was beside himself with anger, his face a flaming purple. “Understand you do not!” he screamed at them. “Bugs you do not go dumping into it! Bugs fall into it with wondrous selectivity!”

O’Toole probably has a point, here. I expect that bugs coming specifically because they are attracted to sugar solutions, will carry a completely different set of wild yeasts and other microorganisms than will random bugs that you might catch by sweeping a net through the tall grass.

10 Responses
  1. September 28, 2011

    Ah, yellowjackets! ‘Twas the search to ID a probable yellowjacket queen that led me to your blog in the spring of 2010, after losing use of the compost heap the previous summer due to a yellowjacket condo.

    I’m happy to report that keeping the compost heap nice and moist has prevented the problem since then.

  2. September 28, 2011

    I love the hair! Great photos again. I wonder if you could shave them and give them little yellowjacket mohawks?

  3. September 29, 2011

    Anne: That’s a good point. Wasps that build paper nests do seem to prefer dry locations, so keeping a spot moist is a good way to get them to stay away from there!

    KT: Can you get hair clippers that small?

  4. October 23, 2011

    I agree with your two ids – they look like male Dolichovespula arenaria (Fabricius, 1775) and Vespula consobrina (de Saussure, 1864). In my neck of the woods, males of the Dolichovespula species spend a lot of time at flowers in late summer and early fall and then disappear. The new queens, though, do not seem to spend much time at flowers and appear to mate and then find a place to hibernate. This is true of Vespula queens too – they are hard to find in the fall. I think they get fed enough in the nest to overwinter.

    With the exception of the Bald-faced Hornet, worker Dolichovespula are not much interested in sweets either – they are usually hunting when they show up around flowers and are not likely to fly into your coke can. The Blackjacket V. consobrina seems to have similar behaviours, or at least I have collected males at flowers.

    The problem yellowjackets in the genus Vespula, however, do have a sweet-tooth as workers. For example, the worker you collected around your apple press looks like Vespula alascensis (Packard, 1870). Until a couple of years ago this would have been called Vespula vulgaris – but now vulgaris is considered to be European (and Australasian – where it has been introduced) and our similar species is now alascensis (last time I checked, this had not been corrected in the Vespid Atlas).

    In contrast to the vulgaris-group workers with their sweet-tooth and the males of Dolichovespula, male Vespula in the vulgaris group don’t seem to go to flowers at all. It is all very strange and mysterious, but I posted on it a couple weeks ago in case you are interested:

  5. October 24, 2011

    Dave: Thanks for the added information, the ID on the wasps that came for a drink of cider, and the link to your page.

  6. Della3 permalink
    November 7, 2011

    I’ve posted a comment before on my experience with paper wasps. When I finally realized they were not interested in any “live and let live” philosphy and they had to go, I tried opening a door a crack and, with a long stick, knocking down a large portion of their paper extruding from the ground before I quickly released the stick and closed the glass door. It took them only one second to viciously attack the door, glaring at me through it, desparately trying to find a way in to get at me. I then knew just how intelligent they were and they would not be easily dealt with.

    The idea of keeping the area wet is a good one. I wish I had thought of it. I could have redirected some sprinklers in the direction of their nest and let the automatic timer do the deed while I was safely elsewhere. Instead, I called an exterminator who wisely showed up in the evening when they would all be at home. A bucket of poison powder was overturned on the opening. He explained that each time they entered or exited they would get covered in the powder and die. I was told to wait several weeks before disturbing the site, but I only saw a few wasps after that, and they were crawling slowly.

    This is one of the most intelligent insects I have ever met. I think they even recognized my face! (after the nest-bashing incident)

  7. rbuxton permalink
    September 13, 2012

    Wonderful website – found through Rusty’s Honey Bee Suite.

    What you say about wasps carrying yeasts has been the subject of scientific experimentation in Europe. I believe we can thank the wasps for our wines, for without them to carry the substance between vines we would not have the necessary bloom of yeasts on our grapes.

  8. Jenni Storms permalink
    August 9, 2019

    Cute faced critters but, why do they need to feel they need to be so damn blasted mean!?!? Why do they feel the need to put hives in all the wrong places (imo) !?!?

    I LOVE honey bees and Bumblee bees. Who the hell created these guys including the hornets and the wasps!?!?!?

  9. richard chester permalink
    August 1, 2020

    it was the first time i saw a black yellow jacket-are they native to long island New York?

  10. August 2, 2020

    I expect they are, yes, but they are apparently less likely to hang around human habitations than some of the yellow yellowjackets are.

Comments are closed.