They’re out there in my side yard as I write this – a nest of hundreds, maybe thousands, of yellow jackets, coming and going from their subterranean bunker with total impunity.

On a shelf inside the house sits a can of Raid Wasp & Hornet killer, capable of wiping out the entire colony in seconds from a comfortable distance of 22 feet.

And in the middle?

Me. Caught between the prudence of a preemptive strike and the providence of “live and let live.”

It all started last week when my visiting son asked if I knew about the underground nest, which he and my grandson had stumbled across while checking out my nearby vegetable garden.

It was news to me. I’ve mowed over that area weekly since May without so much as a buzz, let alone a sting. Now, as I headed out the next morning to investigate, I found myself tiptoeing around like I was in a minefield.

Finally, I saw it: a dark, quarter-size hole boring diagonally into the grass, with a steady stream of what I thought were bees (what do I know?) arriving and departing with the steady rhythm of a runway at JFK.

People deal with these situations in different ways. Some marvel, oblivious to the threat. Others run, never to return.

My first instinct was to annihilate.

Off I raced to the local Aubuchon Hardware for the can of insecticide. But upon returning and watching them once again from a safe distance, I balked – in part because they’d yet to hurt me or anyone else, and in part because we hear a lot about bees being in serious trouble these days and who was I to add to their misery?

Except, I later realized after examining a close-up on my smartphone camera, they’re not bees. They’re yellow jackets, a type of wasp. Totally different ballgame.

I decided I needed professional help.

“Perfect,” said Jennifer Lund, Maine’s state apiarist and bee inspector, after I carefully described the situation over the phone Tuesday morning.

“Are they stinging?” she asked.

“No.”

“Are they a problem?”

“Ummm … not yet.”

“In most cases, if they’re not bothering anybody, I usually say leave them alone,” Lund advised. “They’re really great predators, so if you have a garden …”

Here’s where things got interesting.

I started the garden on a whim last spring. One minute I was planting the basil my wife brought home from nearby Snell Family Farm, the next I was adding cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, pumpkins, even a sunflower plant.

The garden has gone gangbusters all summer, especially the leafy plants that in my past attempts at vegetable growing always fell victim to a variety of foliage-munching caterpillars.

Not a caterpillar in sight this year – and now I knew why. The yellow jackets eat them. Or, more precisely, they kill them and feed them to their larvae back home. It’s where they got the nickname “meat bees.”

A yellow jacket taking down a caterpillar? How does that work?

“Often they’ll land on it, sting it, pick it up and fly it to the nest,” Lund said.

Yellow jackets are that strong?

“They are. Sometimes, if it’s a big caterpillar, they may chew it up and take only half of it or chew it all up and consume it and regurgitate it once they get to the nest. … If you watch them for a while, you’ll see them come back with little caterpillars between their legs, going into the nest.”

Fascinating stuff, provided you stay the hell out of their way.

It’s all about respecting the yellow jackets’ “territorial zone,” Lund said. For example, she has a nest in the eves of her woodshed that’s just high enough for her to pass beneath without incident.

“But my husband, who’s a foot taller, would get zapped every time because his head was going into that defensive zone,” Lund said.

This late in the season, as their nests grow ever larger and their food supply dwindles, yellow jackets get testier about intruders. Meaning the chance of getting stung – which individual yellow jackets can do repeatedly, by the way – steadily increases until the first hard freeze. Then the whole nest dies off virtually overnight and the queens head off to hibernate until next spring.

Which brings us back to my moral dilemma.

Should I give the tiny hole a wide berth with my mower and wait until the changing of the season stops the yellow jackets cold?

Or should I get out the Raid and end this invasion before it ends me?

Or should I consider something even more dramatic, like the guy in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, who last week attacked a nest in the eves of his home with a barrage of Roman candles. The last one hit the mark and promptly set the man’s roof on fire.

Lund assured me that if I destroy the nest, I won’t be contributing to the decline of a species as I’d originally feared. Unlike honeybees, she said, yellow jackets “are in no trouble. They’re very widespread and actually sometimes they get so abundant in an area where they actually will kill honeybee hives.”

Great. If I wipe out the yellow jackets and thus protect the honeybees, what kind of message will I be sending to the caterpillars?

Don’t laugh, my friends. We live in complicated times.

Lund suggested I wait the yellow jackets out – at least for now.

If I let them live out their short, tempestuous lives, she said, the next generation likely will set up shop somewhere else next year, steering clear of the old nest because they won’t know whether it’s occupied.

“Of course, they don’t read the books we write about them,” she mused. “So sometimes they’ll do exactly the opposite of what we want.”

Enough said. Time to stock up on Roman candles.


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