Yellowjacket is one of those colorful names we use to identify just about any black and yellow bug that buzzes and bites. Truth be told, there are only three species of yellowjackets common in Missouri: two species native to the state and one species introduced from Europe.
Our native yellowjackets typically nest in the ground, modifying chipmunk and mouse burrows. The introduced German yellowjacket invariably builds its nest in buildings, usually in an attic or behind a wall.
What Missouri yellowjackets lack in numbers of species they make up for in individuals. A single colony by late summer can contain 5,000 to 10,000, or more. Like honeybees, bumblebees, ants, hornets and termites, yellowjackets are true social insects. Multiple generations live together in a nest and share care of the offspring, but only queens are capable of reproducing.
Most individuals in a yellowjacket nest are workers - females in a genetic sense, but infertile. They are the laborers, getting food, enlarging and defending the nest and taking care of the developing young and the queen.
The colony produces new queens and males in late summer and fall. After mating, each new queen leaves the nest and spends the winter in a protected place. The old queen, workers and males all perish with the arrival of cold weather, and the delicate in-ground paper nest decays.
The following spring the new queen emerges, and - alone - begins a new nest, usually in a new location. It takes about a month for her first eggs to develop into workers. Thereafter, the queen stays in the nest, laying eggs, cared for by her workers.
Though yellowjackets do bite, it's the defensive equipment at the other end of the female yellowjacket's body (the sting and the venom) that causes all the pain. Male yellowjackets, like other male wasps and bees, do not have a sting. While most other wasps use the sting and venom to immobilize their prey, yellowjackets use it almost exclusively to defend their nest. Most of us have learned this the hard way.
Yellowjackets have a beneficial side that is easy to forget. Part scavenger, part predator, yellowjackets play an important role in limiting populations of small plant-feeding insects and in cleaning up dead and decaying materials.
Consider these benefits the next time you find a yellowjacket nest in your yard, and weigh them against human safety. Then, decide whether or not to remove the nest. You may just find a balance somewhere.
Learn more about yellowjackets in Common Missouri Wasps and Bees.