09 July 2015

With summer comes yellowjackets

    We're in the midst of a drought, right now. We have had less than an inch of rain since early May.

    This is highly unusual-and distressing. Living in the Pacific Northwest usually means wet, cool summers, ones that prevent one from growing tomatoes but is great for things like onions. But this year our summer has been dry. A burn ban (meaning no outdoor burning at all, even in campfire rings) was instated in June, (as opposed to the normal 15 July). Of course the idiots with 4th of July fireworks refused to see the tinder dry conditions and set off, oh, about a thousand fires with them. One county alone had 500 fires in just three days. 

There are at least three forest fires burning as I type this, one (dubbed the "Sleepy Hollow" fire) burnt out 25 megamansion homes. What was bizarre was how the fire spread. The pictures of the ruins show piles of blackened rubble where the fancy home burnt to the foundations, and each is surrounded by an emerald green lawn. Obviously this was a 'crown fire'. The forest fire behind the housing area spread by leaping tree top to tree top and burning embers fell on the roofs, starting them from top down. The fire was set by a thrown and still lit cigarette.

   If you can imagine, we are all, in my neighborhood, hyper vigilant about fire. I have a garden hose all set up, I've scalped the lawn (which died off two months ago) and keep a very wary eye out for smoke. That's no help, though, as smoke from the uncontained fires in British Columbia have traveled this far south and the sky is hazy and brown from it. 

   Had I known that I would have ideal conditions for growing tomatoes, I'd have planted them in my gardens. But what did I know. In the past I've lost tomatoes on 24 June..from FROST. So I may be forgiven for my 'once burned, twice shy' attitude in my refusal to try again with 'maters. Never mind, we get good ones from the farmer's market,hefty juicy beefsteak tomatoes that taste incredible. 

   We have had 90+  (38 C)plus temps for at least two weeks. What with dealing with the inordinately hot temps in a state where no house has air conditioning (unless you buy the window units, like we did), you forget about some of the things that a hot dry summer brings.
That being, yellowjackets.
Yellowjacket, larger than life to show detail
Yellowjacket, just a bit larger than life size. Queens get this big, though


 These little monsters are unforgiving. A colonial wasp, there's no gentleness in a yellowjacket. Unlike bees, (which die after only one sting) wasps can sting you as often as they please. They live underground, but not always. Sometimes they build ornate paper nests, and sometimes they crawl into nooks and crevices in your house, or under a canopy, or in the tack room. Meaning, they're everywhere. They are merciless monsters. 

   Of course, being the New World, we are swamped with invasives. The wasps that build the nests in houses, etc, are German wasps.

    If you google around, you'll find pictures of enormous colonies, sometimes in the most inappropriate places: someone's car left with windows open in a storage unit:

Yellowjacket nest built in a car. Courtesy of the Michigan State University's website
    Often, they're built in an attic, packed from one end to the other with one giant nest. There was one horror story a couple years ago where a little girl, laying in her bed, had the ceiling collapse from the weight of the (up until then, unknown colony). She was stung hundreds of times. She survived, I think, but imagine the terror she must have felt. 

They make themselves unwelcome guests to your picnic. The adult wasps eat sweet things, like anything sugary. They feed protein to their  larvae. Therefore they will eat anything, from your peanut butter and jelly sandwich (protein in the pb and sugar in the jelly), potato chips, (crisps?) and god help you if you have a can of pop to go with your lunch.  

Being mindless, they take everything as either something to eat or something to sting.  Some people, like my spouse, are allergic to wasp venom and can die from anaphylitic shock. The best way to start a yellowjacket attack is to swat one. If you don't kill it immediately, the injured yellowjacket emits a pheromone that enrages every other yellowjacket in the vicinity, and instantly you are being stung by dozens of wasps. They've been known to get into a birdbox and kill the babies within.

   Several years ago, when I still had Jordan here at home, he was stung by a yellowjacket in a most uncomfortable place-right on the sheath. Oh my gosh. He bolted like a gazelle and when I was able to catch him (he usually came right to me) I didn't know what was wrong at the time. However, within an hour his sheath had swollen to an incredibly uncomfortable looking size. To quote the vet, "he's hung like King Kong". We were scared of the possibility that the wasp had stung his penis, or that the sheath might swell up so much that he couldn't extrude his penis in order to pee. While that didn't happen, what did happen was that the wasp sting turned into an open wound. Which attracted flies. Jordan was so uncomfortable. There's only so much you can do to an open wound in that spot. You can't bandage it. Flies are as merciless as wasps and far more numerous. They also carry disease, but I was lucky in that nothing (i.e. staph infection) got into the wound. It took a long time, if I remember correctly for the wound to heal, and his sheath never did return to it's normal size. 

   I've heard horror stories of folks out trail riding and disturbing a yellowjacket nest, with the ensuing chaos. Stung horses, stung riders and a hundred mile an hour bolt up a trail, gang the hell way. Again, it might not even be you or your horse that upset them. You might be riding up a trail that, unknown to you, someone broke a yellowjacket nest fifteen minutes ago, and YOU get nailed by the furious wasps.

    Yellowjackets are vicious. 

   I don't mind wasps when they stay out in the 'wild' where they belong. By which I mean, not in my garden. Everywhere else is fine. They are ferocious predators of a lot of bad bugs, larvae and other insects that would eat my vegetables if they could. I don't like that they kill spiders but.........we have lots of spiders.

   It is when they enter MY domain that I get pissed. Last night I was digging up a weed in my flower beds (which are still blooming as I water them daily) and got smacked in the head. I disregarded it. My california poppies are keeping a hundred or more bumblebees fed. Sometimes the bumblebees in their exuberance to get to a  specific flower will smack into you. They say, hey, ape, you're in the way but they seldom sting. I"ve even stepped on them with a boot and when I lifted it up, the bumblebee got in my face as if to say "Hey, you could at least apologize".

   But this time was different. Up until last night, I hadn't known the yellowjackets were out. 

The next thing I know, I was being stung on my hand, right through my rubber-and-fabric gloves, right on the knuckle. WOW that hurts. Luckily I am immune to wasp venom but still, it's painful. I rushed in the house and ran hot water on it, which seems to help, and then put some Benadryl on it. 

   Then, when the sun had gone down and the heat dropped, I put up a wasp trap. Actually, I put up two. One has a bait that is activated by water. The wasps get in, drawn by the scent of the bait, and can't get out. They eventually tire and fall into the water where they drown. 

   The other trap, though, is a plastic cone, based on the same principle...wasps can get in but are too stupid to be able to get out. In this type of trap, they don't drown, they just buzz in helpless fury until they die. In this trap I used cat food for bait. 

   Both traps are full right now of angry wasps. I'm going to trap these monsters out. I cannot afford to have my husband hospitalized from an allergic reaction, and damn it, this is my turf.  

   There is one animal in North America that doesn't care that yellowjackets sting. This creature is one of the most maligned animals in the world. Even their name is used as a perjorative. They can carry rabies, so can be dangerous, and some people get physically ill from their scent. (other folks, like me, lack a gene that makes the smell so physically reactive, and so I'm not affected by the smell).
That animal is the skunk.

We have two species of skunk. Cousins of the mustelids (weasels, badgers, etc), these handsome animals are fairly timid animals, but have a powerful weapon in their anal scent glands. Americans can tell you that when a skunk sprays, everyone knows it. When I was growing up, one of our dogs would routinely attack skunks that had the temerity to enter her territory, and would be sprayed. Oh, my.  
In the southeastern parts of the US, skunks can carry rabies.
But my area doesn't have rabies. 

    Last summer, yellowjackets made a nest in the ground right under one of my apple trees. I didn't know this until I mowed the grass over it and only because I saw the wasps erupt did I manage to escape without a sting. But the colony's presence was a constant threat to us. 
We avoided that part of the backyard, but..it was irksome. 
    Until one morning I smelled skunk. I didn't think much of it until I went outside. There were a few yellowjackets buzzing aimlessly about, not angry, just...bewildered. Several were on my screened porch and I took great delight in killing them. (spraying them with soapy water both stops the pheromone from being emitted and suffocates them).
That's when I noticed a mound of freshly dug earth where the wasp nest had been.
Yes, that's the past tense. Madam Skunk had dug out the entire nest and eaten all the larvae.  She doesn't give a damn if they sting her. I bet the scent keeps them away. She'd destroyed a pest for me, and I am very thankful for her actions.

   I would rather have a skunk in my backyard than a wasp nest in my house.  



Tails FromProvence said...

Jeez, that nest in the car ---!!!
I hate the little feckers too. However, here in Provence, the wasps are different. They're slim, long-legged and dainty, and they're very polite. In fact, they're very FRENCH! They don't get 'in your face' where food is concerned and they don't have that same angry buzz that the 'normal' wasps have. We have thousands of them visit the edge of our pool every day to drink. When someone goes in to swim, they politely get out of the way as they pass and then descend once again to drink. They live in small nests under the roof tiles of every house in the area, so although we have treated our roof with insecticide, we still have zillions of them coming from our neighbours houses.
Despite their French politeness and reserve, I still hate 'em... we put stuff in the pool that changes the surface tension so that they get stuck there and drown. Then we end up with hundreds or even thousands of wasps floating on the surface. Ugh. But at least they are dead.

Khutulan said...

I never thought of trying to drown them in the pool. We have a small pond (for frogs and birds) and the surface is sometimes covered with paper wasps. What's the name of the surface tension stuff?