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October 15, 2017
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

When writing a weekly news column, I oft times find myself coming up against a deadline without much for inspiration. Such was the case this week. That is, until I was outside working in the yard over the weekend.

It was a bit later in the morning that I bent down to move a piece of lumber and was surprised by an angry wasp near my head. That story ends well with no pain, but it became the inspiration for this column. I am sure you would agree that this has been a year for bees and wasps.

The family that includes bees and wasps is actually quite huge. They range in size from those bothersome sweat bees to the quite large and scary looking cicada killer wasps that can be over two inches in length. Most are solitary in their habits, but a few species are colonial and build large nests that can be home to thousands of workers. Most of them can be considered beneficial since they either play an important role in pollination of many plants or are predators or parasites of other insects and their larvae.

Most, but not all, wasps and bees are equipped with stingers that they use in subduing their prey and in self-defense. Most are not aggressive toward humans. Even the huge, scary cicada killer wasps tend to ignore people unless they're physically threatened. The colonial species still serve useful roles in nature, but can become problematic when they build too close to humans and think their nest is threatened. Whatever or whoever is perceived as a threat can end up with multiple stings as the workers attack en-mass. A honey bee can sting only once, but wasps can sting multiple times. Large colony attacks can become deadly. Adults should know better than to approach colonies too closely, but children and pets may not be as careful.

Colonial wasps begin each growing season as a single young queen that has wintered over. The queens enter winter hibernation already fertilized by drone males that die once their biological function is completed. All the sterile female workers die, as well, once freezing weather arrives. Colonial wasps can be particularly dangerous this time of year since their colonies build in numbers all summer long and reach maximum size in the fall.

Paper wasps are black and brown and about an inch long. Their umbrella-shaped nests up under the eves of the house or under the deck may have dozens of sterile female workers who capture prey to feed more young workers and the queen.

Bald faced hornets are black and white, and are similar in length but more stoutly built. They typically live in large covered paper nests above the ground in trees or bushes. Nests can grow to considerably larger than a football, and may hold hundreds of workers.

Slightly smaller yellow jackets are black and yellow and may be mistaken for bees. They have none of the fuzziness that bees have, though. Their paper nests are typically hidden underground or inside a structure. They often take over a small animal burrow and hollow out a larger nest chamber as the colony grows. A single yellow jacket nest may hold hundreds of workers by this time of year, but, hidden as they are, may not be noticed until it's too late.

I am reminded of an incident in my childhood. It was a family reunion in my great-grandfather's timber. We were playing hide and seek. My brother chose to hide in a woodpile that we discovered was home to a nest of yellow jackets. Now, as a child we were told by my mother to stand perfectly still if a bee or wasp landed on you so as not to scare it into stinging. That does not work for angry yellow jackets! My older cousin came running in and scooped my brother up and carried him to safety, but not until he had been stung multiple times and reacted quite violently to the stings.

Yellow jackets typically are predatory meat eaters that feed on other insects and their larvae. They develop a sort of sweet tooth late in the year, too, and may be attracted to fruit or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so be on the lookout until frost.



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