Paper wasps and yellow jackets are two different kinds of stinging insects, which when viewed through a different lens, become beneficial helpers in the garden.
These two look-alike insects are often confused with one another, but they have very different personalities. One is very mild mannered and the other can be quite aggressive, but both are very beneficial in the vegetable garden because they prey on caterpillars. Being able to distinguish between them can help you avoid stings. Because they are so helpful in the garden, this article will show you how to live peacefully with them rather than get rid of them.
Paper Wasps are predatory social insects that are vivid yellow and black, but you can tell them from yellow jackets by their tiny, wiry middles and the way their long legs dangle when they fly. They do a sort of gentle dancing “hover” in flight, rather than the jerky, rapid back-and-forth of yellow jackets. They are altogether more peaceful than yellow jackets, and while they can sting, they rarely do. You pretty much have to step on, sit on, or put your hand on one (or actually bother their nest) before they sting. Paper wasps build open-bottomed, single-layer combed nests that hang by a single stalk underneath decks, eaves or other protected places.
I’ve seen them build nests inside upside-down plant pots in the greenhouse, inside the rim of a trampoline, and even under the top of a “Topsy Turvy” upside down tomato planter that was abandoned.
Their nests are much smaller than yellow jacket nests, and rarely get much bigger than a few inches across. Some people (like me) actually attract paper wasps to the garden intentionally to help keep caterpillars and other pest insects down. I put out an 18” plastic plant pot saucer filled with pebbles near the hose bib, and keep it full of water.
The pebbles keep the wasps from drowning, and in mid-summer when it’s really hot, they really appreciate being able to get an easy drink. I also leave my extra, upside down, stored plant pots alone in the summer, so that the paper wasps can build nests there if they want.
Yellow jackets are also very helpful to vegetable gardeners because they also eat caterpillars and other destructive insect pests. I once had an indoor ficus tree that was covered with the houseplant pest known as “scale”. I set it outside under a shade tree for the summer, and was fascinated to watch as the yellow jackets ate off every single scale bug, including the newly hatched ones, over the course of the summer. When I brought it back in it was completely cleaned of scale, which has never returned.
Yellow Jackets are also predatory social wasps but they have more compact, vivid yellow and black bodies, without the skinny waist of the paper wasp. They live mostly in animal burrows underground or in enclosed cavities such as in the walls of houses. There is one species of yellow jacket, though, that builds a gray paperlike “balloon” with a hole in the bottom, which is most commonly found hanging from sheltering tree branches or under protected eaves. Inside either the burrow, the wall, or the “balloon”, the colony builds vertically-tiered layers of gray paper combs, where the eggs are laid and the larva develop into adults.
As a yellow jacket colony grows throughout the season, the population may outstrip its food supply and the hungry yellow jackets will begin to attend barbecues and outdoor events in search of a sweet or meaty food (which is where they get the nickname “meat bees”). Like many insects, they have compound eyes which makes them very attuned to motion. If you swat all around with your arms you are much more likely to be stung than if you just sit quietly or try to move slowly away.
Yellow jackets are most aggressive when their nest is threatened, and they can sting multiple times (unlike bees), with each sting attracting more yellow jackets by the smell. Once you get stung, if you are anywhere near their nest, it is smart to get away as fast as you can because more will come after you.
If yellow jackets are just visiting your barbecue, they don’t really want to sting you, they just want to eat. If you stay calm and still, it is unlikely you will be stung.
I was once at a Buddhist retreat center in the mountains where there were tons of yellow jackets. At mealtimes, the nuns would put out a plate of cut fruit on a nearby wooden railing, and the yellow jackets came by the hundreds. No one ever got stung because everyone moved slowly and calmly, and just respected them as fellow creatures.
One thing to be aware of though is that yellow jackets will often enter a soda pop can to get at the sugar, and when you go to take a swig…AAAGHH!!! This is actually pretty common. So if there are yellow jackets at your party, pour your Coke in a glass or cup so you can avoid nasty surprises.
Both yellow jackets and paper wasps raise fertile queens in the late summer and fall. The nests are abandoned in late fall, and while the males and unfertilized females die, the fertile queens overwinter in sheltered places, such as in dry, protected leaf litter, holes in walls, or in other crevices. They can freeze solid and come back to life when they thaw out (so can houseflies). The queens will start new colonies in the spring, usually in a different location than where they were born. A fertile queen can choose to lay either male or female eggs (like bees). Old nest do not get reused.