0808swarmaudHear Billy Skaggs discuss how to rid your yard of yellowjacket nests.
But this year, their populations seem to have gone out of control. Over the past couple of weeks, some area residents have complained of so many yellowjackets swarming over their lawns that they’re almost afraid to go outside.
Billy Skaggs, agriculture agent with the Hall County Extension Service, said of 52 phone calls the agency received one day last week, at least 15 were about yellowjackets.
"It’s been amazing," he said. "This has been the worst year (for yellowjackets) I’ve seen in my 10 years as a county extension agent."
Pest exterminators say there are more people seeking help to get rid of the insects.
"We have been getting more calls than usual and earlier in the year than usual," said Frank Roberts of Select Pest Control in Gainesville.
Local experts don’t know exactly what’s causing the yellowjackets’ population boom. Most think it has something to do with the weather, but they disagree on whether it is because of too much rain or too little.
What they do know is that the problem will end with the first frost, when yellowjacket colonies die out. But that’s about two months away.
In the meantime, the focus is on how to prevent people from being stung.
"It’s a very painful bite," Skaggs said.
For him, the stings are not just painful but dangerous. Skaggs said he is highly allergic to insect bites. He always carries an epinephrine "pen" and has occasionally had to use it.
"You should keep Benadryl on hand, even if you think you’re not allergic," he said, noting that a friend of his who is not allergic became very ill after being attacked by a yellowjacket swarm.
Though yellowjackets superficially resemble honeybees, they are far more of a threat to humans. A bee dies after just one sting, because its stinger becomes embedded in the person’s skin. But a yellowjacket can sting multiple times.
Yellowjackets are notorious for their sugar cravings and their tendency to hang around picnic tables and garbage cans. But this time of year, as their colonies grow larger, they become more defensive and will attack humans with little or no provocation.
Skaggs said other than covering exposed skin with clothing, there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself. Insect repellents designed to deter mosquitoes and ticks don’t work on wasps.
But you can make your yard less attractive to yellowjackets.
"Keep your property clear of trash," Skaggs said.
The most important step, however, is to find the nests. Yellowjackets make paper nests similar to those of hornets, but they’re usually hidden underground.
"They can do their own digging, but they’re opportunistic," said Dan Horton, professor of entomology at the University of Georgia. "They nest in existing cavities when possible. They especially look for small holes in the ground associated with animals such as rodents. And stump holes, where a tree used to be, are perfect habitat."
But the yellowjackets will improve on what’s already there. "The nests are often U-shaped, with two entrances," Roberts said.
This makes extermination a challenge. "Liquid (insecticides) don’t work because they pool in the bottom of the hole and don’t reach both entrances," Roberts said.
And while you’re pouring poison down one entrance, hundreds of angry wasps may swarm out of the other side, ready to attack.
Skaggs said you may have better luck with a powdered insecticide, which kills more slowly but is less risky.
The key to successfully eliminating yellowjackets is timing. They aren’t nocturnal, so they quit flying when darkness falls.
Horton said extermination should be done "either late at night with a flashlight, or at the crack of dawn before they get active again."
He recommends wearing gloves and long sleeves and pants. "And never try to get rid of the nest without two people involved," he said. "You need that second person in case you have a reaction (to being stung)."
Roberts said you should identify the nest holes during the day and flag them, so you’ll be able to find the spot at night.
If you’re unsure of your ability to handle the job, Horton advises not to attempt it.
"Safety is more important than getting rid of the nest," he said. "Calling an exterminator is often the safest alternative."
That’s especially true when you consider the size of these nests, which have been known to harbor as many as 250,000 yellowjackets.
"Those nests are huge," Roberts said. "I dug up one that contained 3 pounds of yellowjackets."
Because disturbing a nest can be dangerous, people are especially at risk if they accidentally run over one with a lawnmower.
"I would highly encourage folks to get out and look around (for nests) before you mow the lawn," Skaggs said.