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Dry summer brings out aggressive yellowjackets, which is bad news for honey bees

August 10, 2018
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A honey bee hive displayed by Douglas County Bees at the OSU Extension booth at the Douglas County Fair. The queen bee, which has a yellow spot on her back, is surrounded by worker bees.

Outdoor barbecues this time of year can be a challenge while fighting with pervasive yellowjackets for a bite of chicken, steak or fruit salad.

If you think those stinging pests seem more prevalent than normal this summer, you are not alone.

People are seeing larger than usual numbers of the yellowjackets in their yards and gardens and around the barbecues this year.

But family gatherings are not the only places where the bees are causing problems. Local beekeepers say the carnivorous insects can decimate a honey bee hive.

“We tend to see more of them because it’s hot and dry earlier this year,” said Rob Burns, a master gardener at the Oregon State University Extension Service in Roseburg. “They are actively foraging and they will attempt to attack a honey bee hive, but a strong honey bee hive will be able to defend itself.”

David Humbert, who has had honey bee hives on his property on Boomer Hill for about three years, lost half of his bees last year because of yellowjackets.

“They’ll go into the hives — they’re hunting for protein to make it through the winter — and they’ll catch the bees and bite their heads off,” Humbert said. “A dozen yellowjackets can just clean out 50,000 bees.”

Gloria McCrea, of Roseburg, keeps two hives on her property and said she is also having problems will the yellowjackets going after her hives. She has put out some traps to try to combat the problem, but it doesn’t seem to help.

“They’re attacking my bees now,” she said. “They fly in and decimate it, and they kill the bees.”

Honey bees do have guards, and if they have enough, they can protect their hive from the invaders. Humbert said beekeepers do have ways to combat the invasion of the hungry yellowjackets, by using baited traps for yellowjackets, wasps and hornets.

“If you put it out in the April-May time frame and you catch the queens, then no nests,” Humbert said.

He said if you have the problem during the summer, you can use the same trap and put some cat food in it and that will attract them to the trap.

Jack Reilly of Roseburg has just one hive, but he estimates about 60,000 to 70,000 honey bees call it home. He’s seen the war between the bees first hand.

“The bees are so docile, but one day I couldn’t get near the hive, so I watched with binoculars from a distance and there was a life and death struggle between the yellowjackets and the guard bees, so I hung traps, and in 24 hours, I filled one trap and the other one three-quarters,” Reilly said. “That’s how many yellow jackets were on the property.”

The guard bees, Reilly said, will go after a yellowjacket, but if there are too many yellowjackets and not enough guard bees, the invaders can overpower them.

Burns said the insects are opportunists and if you’re having a barbecue, it might be best to go inside because they will find the food.

“If you’re bringing food out to a picnic table, you’re going to attract a lot of yellowjackets,” Burns said.

If you’re planning an outside activity, you can try to identify the nest beforehand.

“You can eliminate them with a stream of insecticide straight into the nest during evening hours,” said Master Gardener Chris Rusch.

But despite the problems that yellowjackets can cause, they do have their place. They feed on insects, rotten meat, fallen fruit and vegetables, and help keep trash cleaned up.

The OSU Extension Service recommends that if you do have to spray a yellowjacket nest, wait until it’s cool use an insecticide labeled for yellowjacket control and follow the directions.

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