Wasp Identification and Control: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Yellow jackets crawling around their nest
Yellow jacket wasps in their nest. Melissa Ross/Moment Open/Getty Images

Yellow jackets and other wasp species are found -- and feared -- across North America. Although their sting will sting is you are stung, yellow jackets are not naturally aggressive to humans, so generally will not attach people or animals unless they are provoked or feel threatened themselves.

Wasp Identification

Considered by some to be the "supermodels" of the flying insect world:

  • Adults wasps are 1/2- to 3/4-inch long.
  • They have narrow waists and long, cylindrical legs.
  • Their "skin" is smooth and shiny.
  • Wasps have two pairs of fairy-like wings.

 

- Things about Wasps

Adult wasps will feed on sugary treats such as flower nectar and the juice of ripe fruit, but they also will prey on certain insects to feed to their developing young. Wasps lay their eggs in burrows built into a papery nest made from chewed wood mixed with saliva, where the young continue to live as they develop into adult.

While providing their young with meals made up of various insects, the wasps are also providing a natural pest control - targeting insect pests such as flies, grubs, caterpillars, and weevils. In this way, they are being beneficial  for farms and gardens that could otherwise be decimated by crop-destroying insects.

It also is a little known fact that wasps are good pollinators, carrying pollen from plant to plant as they feed on the nectar.

They are not as efficient as bees because the pollen does not stick to their smooth legs and "skin" as it does to the hairy legs of bees, thus not as much gets carried from flower to flower.

These nests may be built in many different types of locations - from underground to tree limbs, building eaves, and wall voids.

Those that are located in areas that do not conflict with human environments can normally simply be left alone. This is because the wasp colony will die out after a single season except for the queen who will overwinter, then emerge in the spring to breed and find a new nesting site; she will not reuse an old nest.

 

The Bad - is When Wasps Sting

Wasps will sting, injecting venom, to defend themselves and their colonies. However, unlike bees which leave their stinger in the flesh and die once they've stung a single time, wasps can withdraw their stingers after injecting the venom without harming themselves. Because of this they are capable of stinging multiple times.

If you or a friend or family member get stung, you can try treating the area with ice, vinegar, meat tenderizer, topical ointments, or antihistamines if it hurts or itches. Because this information is not intended to supplant medical advice, if any serious or questionable reaction occurs, a physician or healthcare professional should be contacted immediately. Additionally, those with known allergies to insect stings are always advised to carry adrenaline-based injectors on their person when outdoors during the warm seasons.

If you expect to be an area with wasps for any reason, you can help protect yourself by wearing long sleeves and long pants so that little skin is exposed, not wearing fragranced perfumes, deodorants, or shampoos, and staying away from flowering plants. If a wasp does come near, the worst thing you can do is attempt to swat at it; it is better to remain calm and still, and move slowly away. However if you are attacked by stinging insects -- now is the time to run as fast and as far as you can - indoors, or into a shaded area. If a wasps gets into your vehicle, stop as slowly and carefully as conditions allow and open all the windows. If you are able to safely get out of the car, you may even want to turn it off, get out, and leave all doors and windows open until it departs.

 

The Ugly of Wasp Control

If wasps have built a nest too close for human comfort, a non-toxic method of nest control involves enclosing the nest AT NIGHT (when wasps are least active) in heavy plastic, then severing it from its attachment point, dropping it into plastic "bag," and sealing it.

The wasps can then be killed by freezing the bag/nest or sitting it out in open sun for a couple of days.

So, wasps can be as beneficial as well as pesky pests so if they are just hanging around and not bothering anyone, let them be. They can help pollinate and rid the yard and garden of other pests.

Updated by Lisa Jo Lupo.