Season of the Buzz
Wasps and bees are filling the air
The blue spruce, a housewarming gift when I first moved to Clark Fork, stands like a sentinel at the front of the house. Close to 80 feet tall (or 60 or 150—I don’t actually know, but it’s easily three times the height of the house), it’s a favored spot, summer and winter, for the cats, who sleep hidden beneath its deep branches and, despite the cats, for dozens upon dozens of birds, who generally also make of it a home.
This summer, they’re sharing it with the wasps. Look closely on a sunny day, and between its branches is a thickly packed blanket of paper wasps, flying and buzzing and seemingly happy just at being alive.
The wasps have taken over this summer, along with hornets, bees, yellow jackets and ants. Exterminators are booked, epi-pens are flying off the shelves, and local restaurants are closing their outdoor decks thanks to the voracious nature of these creatures of the order hymenoptera, who cluster in seconds over any food brought outdoors.
Michael Bauer, extension educator for the University of Idaho Extension Service in Bonner County, says “a mild winter, some moisture in the spring and a warm summer have contributed to above average paper wasps, bald faced hornets and yellow jackets.” An extension publication on the critters tells us that “Cold, rainy weather during April and May reduces the likelihood” of large populations in the summer. Remember that when the next mud season rolls around, and you’re longing for sunshine.
So which of these critters are you dealing with? We’ll assume you already recognize the ant portion of this order, but the difference between bees and wasps generally calls for a closer look. For simple identification purposes, bees tend to have a ‘fuzzier’ look than wasps, whereas wasps can be identified when flying by the way their rear legs hang below their body.
Another way to identify your particular summer visitors is by looking at their nests. “Paper wasps make nests that look like an upside down umbrella in protected spaces,” said Michael, “and are the most aggressive of the three. Hornets make the round nests found in trees and other places, while yellow jackets live in the ground or can be found inside a wall or other part of the structure.”
Both bees and wasps might be found in the “Libertarian” corner of the political structure—if you leave them alone, they’ll generally leave you alone. The problem lies in determining just what “leave them alone” really means. Firing up the lawnmower, eating outside, brushing them away from your face... sometimes, it seems, simply disturbing the air currents by walking by violates the “leave them alone” ethos, and clan hymenoptera goes from being a respected and needed part of the local ecosystem to a frightening and painful nuisance that must be eliminated at all costs.
If you’ve determined a nest needs to be removed, bear a few things in mind.
(1) You should have done this during the spring. Okay, that might not seem so helpful now, but the amount of stinging critters this year should be a reminder to you next April to get rid of nests as soon as you see the Queen building one. Paper wasps, in particular, love to nest in roofs, so nests located near doors should be dealt with immediately.
If you’re only looking to relocate your critters, knocking nests down in the afternoon hours, when they’re out and about, might be safest. Even then, dress appropriately (long sleeves, long pants, safety goggles and gloves—reduce your exposure of bare skin) and be prepared to move out of the area quickly if remaining residents become agitated—and they will become agitated. The nest must be fully destroyed (fire is a good option, but please be careful), and the location monitored closely so that new nests can be destroyed as soon as building begins.
(2) If death is your preference, wasp nests are best dealt with in the early morning or early-to-late evening, when the majority of the nest inhabitants have returned home. The same precautions should be taken as above. If you choose this route, leave the nest for a couple of days so that any wasps missed in the initial application have the opportunity to return and be poisoned. After two days, remove the nest and dispose of it carefully.
According to U of I extension, there are only two products considered to pose no risk to humans: “the EcoEXEMPT product line and Victor Poison-Free Wasp & Hornet Killer.”
(3) For a major infestation, you’re best off calling the professionals. At my daughter’s house in Sandpoint, wasps in the attic began breaking through the light fixtures in the kitchen, eventually knocking a large hole into the ceiling. The number of wasps in the attic numbered in the tens of thousands. Professional exterminators can use chemicals not believed to be toxic to humans or pets for eliminating infestations inside your home.
(4) Despite all precautions, you may well be stung when removing/destroying nests. Be aware that allergies to stings can develop at any time during a person’s life. Just because you were not allergic to stings this morning does not mean you will not be allergic this afternoon. Because allergies trigger an over-reaction of the histamine response to venom, seek immediate medical attention if you develop any difficulty in breathing, break out in hives, have difficulty in swallowing, feel dizzy, or have an overly large swelling response to a sting.
It should go without saying that children should be kept far away from any attempts to deal with a nest.
If you do happen to be stung, wash the area with soap and apply cold/ice compresses to the area to reduce pain. Over the counter anti-histamines may also be helpful, as can topical anesthetics.
Given it’s September, with a rainy pattern moving in as we go to press, wasp problems are currently self-limiting, though at this point nest occupants can number in the thousands; the wasps will not die out until the first frost arrives. As autumn begins, however, nests are busy reproducing new reproductive males and new queens. The queens will live through the winter to begin the cycle anew next spring.
These queens will not take over existing nests, though other unwelcome pests might make them their home through the long months of winter. Once frost has killed off all the worker wasps it’s a good idea to knock down and destroy all nests you find.
Although a nuisance in the numbers we’ve seen this summer, and a danger to those with a sensitivity to their venom, or a lack of sensitivity to nest locations, wasps are nonetheless beneficial neighbors to have. They are amazing pollinators, and can also dispose of an astounding amount of other nuisance—and potentially dangerous—critters, like mosquitoes and flies. And recently it was discovered that wasps, at least in some areas, play an important role in the production of yeast!
So feel free to remove wasps that pose a danger, but otherwise think of them fondly as you slice a piece of sourdough or raise a beer to them in toast.
For more information, read the extension publication “The Homeowner’s Guide to Yellow Jackets, Bald-Faced Hornets and Paper Wasps,” available online at www.cals.uidaho.edu/edComm/pdf/BUL/BUL0852.pdf, or stop by your local extension office.