Yellow jackets can make their presence known very painfully

I spent part of last Sunday afternoon putting fresh pine straw in a large bed in my front yard -- nothing out of the ordinary. Later that day, I noticed several yellow jackets swarming in the bed, going in and out of a hole in the ground in the middle of a dwarf gardenia.

I didn't see them before when I was in that bed putting out pine straw, and felt that if they had been there, I would have been stung. The only thing I could figure is they had just started the nest.

Each summer, I get phone calls on what to do when you discover a yellow jacket nest in the yard. Everybody wants to know the best and safest way to get rid of the nest.

Yellow jackets will be around until the first hard frost, another three months. They seem to especially love to join us when we are outdoors enjoying a picnic.

The good news is that they are not aggressive unless handled. It's probably a good thing, because so many people swat at them.

Even though most of us hate yellow jackets, they are actually good guys that attack and destroy harmful insects.

I know nobody wants to hear that, though. Disturb a nest and it's not a question of if you will get stung, but how many times. That depends on how fast you can run, how close you are to getting indoors, and how easy it is to get out of your pants, shirt, or whatever!

It seems like I step on a yellow jacket nest at least once a year. I try to be careful in my yard, but I get stung a lot on the job. Usually it is when I am evaluating a tree; looking up and walking around and not watching the ground.

If you are allergic to insect stings, you know that you have to seek medical attention immediately or give yourself a shot. If you are not allergic, usually you may just be a little sore for a few days. But there are cases where people who aren't allergic have been stung and had to go to the hospital.

Yellow jackets get more aggressive in late summer and fall. That's because they are at their highest population of the year, and there is less food available for them (anybody or anything is naturally going to be meaner when it is hungry). There's also more chances to get stung, as more people are outdoors at picnics and tailgating before football games.

Yellow jackets usually have their nests in areas not frequently visited by people, such as the far end of the yard, at the edge of the woods or underneath a shrubbery bed.

I learned that the hard way three years ago when I was cleaning out undesirable tree sprouts in this same bed where I saw the yellow jackets last weekend. I got popped once on the ear, and fortunately that was it.

To avoid yellow jacket nests, always take a few minutes to survey the lawn or the beds you are about to work in. If a nest is there, you should see them coming in and going out of a hole in the ground.

Here's how to eliminate a nest:

- Get a can of wasp and hornet spray. It squirts 20 to 25 feet, so you can keep a safe distance when you begin spraying. Wait until almost dark, when the yellow jackets are less active and mostly "in" for the night. Then start spraying at a safe distance as you walk up to the nest. Empty the can on the nest, saturating the ground.

- For extra killing power, prepare a 2-gallon insecticide solution in a bucket, then drench the nest area when you finish with the can. Any common insecticide will do (malathion, carbaryl (Sevin), acephate, bifenthrin (Ortho Max) or cyfluthrin (Bayer Advanced).

I used Sevin on my nest.

- Finally, take a shovelful of moist soil and put it over the nest hole to keep anything from escaping later on.

There is also an organic way to kill the nest. Go out at night with a transparent bowl and firmly place it over the entrance. The next day the adults will be confused by their inability to escape and get food during the day. Amazingly, they will not dig a new escape hole and will soon starve to death.

If the nest is in a place that you never go, you can always just leave it alone: The yellow jackets will be dead after the first hard frost, anyway.

Sid Mullis is the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service Office for Richmond County. Call him at (706) 821-2349, or send e-mail to smullis@uga.edu.

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