Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Eastern Yellowjacket, VESPULA MACULIFRONS

from the July 29, 2012 Newsletter issued from the woods of the Loess Hill Region a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Those overripe, deer-chomped pears beneath the orchard trees also attract juice-craving yellowjackets such as the one shown at work a bove.

Calling this a yellowjacket isn't being very precise because in North America the name yellowjacket is applied to several species in two distinct genera. Just in Florida, for instance, 18 species of the genus Vespula and one of Dolichovespula are regarded as yellowjackets. However, they're all members of the subfamily Vespinae. The good news for us yellowjacket identifiers is that at the DiscoverLife.Org website there's a wonderful, interactive, well illustrated identification guide to the Vespinae of North America, at http://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?guide=Vespinae.

Thanks to that exceptionally useful key I know that what's enjoying our fallen pears is the Eastern Yellowjacket, VESPULA MACULIFRONS. At first I was unsure of the ID because the yellow patterns on my wasp's thorax and abdomen are slightly different from most of those illustrated on the Internet. However, there's great variation in these patterns. Often it's the case that northern variations are much better documented than those from this area.

Yellowjackets and hornets are different species, though both are members of the subfamily Vespinae. In general, hornets are much larger and show fewer yellow markings. Hornets prey on live insects but yellowjackets feed not only on small arthropods but also carrion and fruit juices. Both yellowjackets and hornets enclose their papery nests in a surrounding comb. In nature, yellowjacket nests normally are subterranean (sometimes in decaying stumps), though in urban areas often they're built in hollow walls, attics and the like. Hornets place their combs in trees and bushes, and sometimes below house eaves.

Both impart painful stings, some of which I've written about in Newsletters.

from the August 12, 2001 Newsletter issued from the woods of the Loess Hill Region a few miles south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Tall grass and blackberry brambles had grown up beneath the pear trees so before I could decently collect the crop I had to do some scything.

Now, scything is something beautiful to me. You probably know that a scythe consists of a long, curved blade at the end of a handle about five feet long, and that the handle is curved in a special way. It's the implement carried by Grandfather Time. I feel very fortunate to have been taught the basics of the art of scything when I lived in Belgium, by a fellow who, when he had been a shepherd in Normandy, had learned from an old scything master.

Scything across a field of tall grass, having your rhythm going, seeing the tall grass collapsing evenly where it should, and leaving a clean swath behind you is a form of mediation, a sort of communion with the Earth and the seasons few people experience nowadays, though at one time scything was a basic agricultural task in many of the world's economies. Unfortunately at Laurel Hill I do not have a blade meant for tall grass, nor do I need to cut much tall grass, but still with my shorter-bladed "briar-scythe" I can recall my earlier classical scything in Belgian meadows.

So I was scything short passageways through tall grass between trees and I felt my blade slice into a hill of dirt. I figured it was just a fireant hill and continued. But then something bulletlike zapped my right ear, I felt little legs tangling in my hair and beard, and I knew instantly that I'd scythed into a yellowjacket hill.

I was lucky that most of the yellowjackets tangled in my hair and stung the bandana around my head keeping sweat from my eyes, for I managed to get away with only that one sting on the ear. The ear was puffy for a couple of days and it hurt like the dickens.

Despite the pain I remain a fan of yellowjackets. Yellowjackets are members of the Vespid Wasp family, and along with hornets they belong to the subfamily Vespinae. In other words, yellowjackets and hornets are closely related wasps, and neither of them are bees. Bees and wasps are very different kinds of insects. Yellowjackets and hornets have slender "waspish" waists while honeybees are thick-waisted. Yellowjackets are smaller than honeybees, and have a good bit of yellow on them. Hornets are larger and blacker, with only a little yellowish-white on them. Both yellowjackets and hornets carry a wallop in their sting.

Our yellowjackets (there are different kinds) live in colonies of 500-5000 individuals. The usual yellowjacket home is an underground nest like I scythed into, but also they've been known to nest in wall voids and other above-ground locations. When their nests are disturbed, sentry wasps fly out and begin stinging. Their venom contains an "alarm substance" which alerts other wasps that more stinging needs to be done, so once you've been stung it's a good idea to move out of the area.

I got away fast without thinking too hard on it, leaving the scythe where it fell. The next morning I returned to retrieve the scythe and to my astonishment a decent cloud of yellowjackets was still active above the decapitated nest. Four days later, however, the cloud had disappeared, though a few individual wasps were still buzzing about.

As summer ends and cool weather comes, yellowjackets become even more aggressive than they are now. One reason for that may be that the individual wasps don't have much to loose by getting into a fight, for when cold weather really arrives they will all die, except for the queen. Only the queen will survive winter, and then next spring she will find a new place and begin the colony all over again in a new nest.

Everyone knows that yellowjackets come uninvited to picnics and cluster around glasses of sweet iced-tea. Often in town yellowjackets are spotted flying around hedges. They are searching for other kinds of insects and arthropods, such as spiders, which they eat.