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Tips for dealing with yellow jackets

Eating and drinking food outdoors in late summer often results in an invasion of flying insects. People often think these are bees, but usually these uninvited guests are yellow jackets. Yellow jackets will make a gray paper-like nest in the air, in the brick or siding on your house or in underground rodent burrows. Often confused with bees, yellow jackets are much more aggressive, and most reported "bee stings" are usually yellow jacket stings.

They are around in the spring and early summer, however during this time the yellow jackets are carnivores, feeding mostly on insects to provide protein to developing larvae in their colony. In doing so, they help keep garden pests such as caterpillars and insects in check. As the season progresses, their population grows and their diet changes to include more sugars. As natural food sources become scarce, they turn to scavenging, and that's when you'll find them lurking around garbage cans and pestering anyone eating or drinking food. A few yellow jackets here and there are a nuisance, but a nest of them in your yard or under your deck can pose a real hazard.

Honeybees nest in cavities, such as hollowed out tree trunks (or in beekeepers' boxes). Honeybees are relatively gentle as they forage among flowers for nectar and pollen, and usually sting only when stepped on or swatted. A honeybee can only sting once. When it stings, its barbed stinger and the attached venom sac are ripped from it body, killing it. They will defend their nest, but only within the immediate area. If stung by a honeybee, use a fingernail, butter knife, credit card or similar device to scrape out the stinger. If you try to pull it out, you'll squeeze the attached sac and inject more venom.

Bumblebees nest underground, but they are so big and fuzzy they are easy to distinguish from yellow jackets. Their colonies rarely top 100 individual bees, in contrast to the thousands of wasps in a yellow jacket colony. They will chase invaders and pursue them further than honeybees, but they won't come out in droves like yellow jackets. Bumblebees, like yellow jackets, can sting multiple times.

By late summer a colony of yellow jackets may contain thousands of wasps that will aggressively defend their nests from intruders. They're easily provoked and will attack in force, chasing the perceived threat for long distances. Sounds and vibrations, such as a lawn mower or trimmer, can trigger an attack, even from a distance.

If you are stung by a yellow jacket, wasp or hornet, run! The insect may leave behind a chemical that marks you as the enemy, inciting other yellow jackets to attack. Don't swat at the insect, just get away quickly.

Some tips to avoid insect stings include:

• Do not swat at flying insects. If they land on you, gently brush them off, then walk away.

• If you observe insects flying in and out of a hole, avoid it.

• Avoid floral perfumes, lotions and hair products, which may attract insects

• Yellow jackets are attracted to sugary sodas and may fly into the cans, so pour the drink into a glass so you can see the liquid.

• Keep garbage cans and pet food covered.

If you are stung, seek medical help immediately if:

• You've been stung more than 10 times.

• You've been stung in the mouth or throat.

• You have any symptoms of a bee or wasp sting allergy, such as difficulty breathing or speaking, swelling in the mouth or throat, wheezing hives or rash, or tightness in the chest.

• If you are allergic to bee stings, carry an Epi-pen.

The pain of a bee sting can be eased by using a paste of baking soda and water, the cut side of an onion, a damp tea bag, toothpaste, Preparation H, ice, cortisone cream, or by taking aspirin, ibuprofen or Benadryl.

The best time to destroy a wasp nest is when it is cool or cold in the evening. Use a wasp spray or dust and discharge it in the hole. Then if possible cover the hole. Some gardeners pour boiling water or soapy water (10 plus gallons) down the hole. But any insects you do not kill will be infuriated and come after you.

Take comfort in the fact that yellow jacket nests are annual. The old queen and workers only live until the weather gets below freezing, then they die. If you can manage to live around them, it may be easiest to wait until the cold temperatures kill them. The nests are not reused the following spring.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.