The Naturalist in Wilton: Yellow jackets: What are they good for anyway?

Sam Nunes, who is an environmental educator at the Woodcock Nature Center in Wilton, writes this monthly guest column about the insects that are known as yellow jackets.

Sam Nunes, who is an environmental educator at the Woodcock Nature Center in Wilton, writes this monthly guest column about the insects that are known as yellow jackets.

Contributed photo

Yellow jackets are one of the top summertime fears. As an educator, I am asked all the time if we could just get rid of them. But that would be a bad idea, because they have an important role in the environment. But what is that role? How are yellow jackets benefiting their ecosystem?

Yellow jackets are a type of wasp native to North America and are easily recognizable with their yellow and black stripes. They are nest-building insects, which actually plays a role in making them aggressive (and why we don’t like them so much). Nest-building bees and wasps that live in colonies with queens are more likely to sting. But only the females can sting you - and they only do it to protect the hive and the queen from intruders and threats. Solitary bees like mason bees that don’t have a hive to protect are unlikely to sting in defense.

So how do they help the environment? Unlike honeybees, yellow jackets are primarily carnivores, eating other insects like bees and flies. This is good - it helps keep the population numbers of those insects under control. Yellow jackets also eat carrion, which is meat from dead animals. When a large carnivore, such as a bear or coyote, kills and eats another animal like a deer, they can’t pick off every piece of meat on the bones. The yellow jackets swoop in and pick off the little bits of meat that are inaccessible to the larger carnivores. This makes sure no meat goes to waste and it helps the decomposition process. To get their carbohydrates, yellow jackets also y drink nectar from flowers and munch on fruits (either from the environment or your picnic basket).

Nature lives in a delicate balance. Although they can cause us stress, yellow jackets fit within that balance and provide important services to our ecosystem. The best thing we can do to share our world with them is treat them with respect and show them that we are not a threat. If you come into contact with yellow jackets, try not to panic and fling your arms around, yelling and screaming. They will interpret that as a threat and move in for the sting. Calmly move away or stay still until they move on themselves. Yellow jackets can be scary, but we don’t have to live in fear of them.

Sources:

http://naturemappingfoundation.org/natmap/facts/yellow_jacket_712.html