Many years ago, Kate attended a local summer Girl Scout camp, which took place in a secluded canyon in Briones Regional Wilderness, which spans four cities and is a haven for wildlife. One of the highlights of this camp was that the girls learned how to cook lunch over a campfire, and did this (with the leaders' help) every day. We're not talking hot dogs and hamburgers; we're talking cast iron dutch ovens on coals, and using box ovens, to cook everything from taco casserole to potato and bacon hash. Dessert always followed; cake or cobbler, with ice cream made in hand-cranked buckets, natch. It was fun. Messy and a little dangerous, but fun. There was one major problem every year, and this was yellow jackets. The tiny beasties would swarm the picnic tables in droves. Everything had to be constantly covered. Girls, aged 5-15, screamed repeatedly. There was always a group of them running down or up a canyon, screeching about the 'bees.'
My job at this camp was nature leader, so, me being me, I did a lot of research about the yellow jackets and incorporated some of what I learned into the lessons, hoping to calm fears. For instance: Did you know that yellow jackets are one of nature's best garbage collectors and composters? Without them, we'd be knee-deep in detritus. Yellow jackets also eat insect pests that bother us and eat our crops, like flies and caterpillars. I often find them, in the heat of summer, scavenging dying bees from the 'graveyard' under my hive. They take those back to their nests and feed them to their young. Yellow jackets even pollinate flowers, like in the photo above, something I never knew before today. I watched this lady long enough to take the picture and fire it off to my insect professor, who wrote back immediately: "Yes indeed, they love pollen and any sweet liquid like nectar!" It's hard to hate anything that pollinates flowers.
The problem, of course, is that they are so aggressive. They get into our food when we try to eat outside. They drop into soda cans, surprising the drinker on the next sip. They can sting repeatedly without any repercussions. It's so freaking annoying. I hate them hovering around the chickens, eating any tidbits I put out for them. If the yellow jackets nest in your yard, they are very hard to eradicate. As my dad found out, last summer, in his own yard, they are not deterred by any kind of bee suit and will sting through them with abandon if their home is threatened.
Yellow jackets are social creatures, just like bees, and in fact are in the same family as honeybees and ants (Hymenoptera). The queens, newly hatched in fall, overwinter in leaf litter. In the spring, they emerge and find a place to start a nest. They eat until they are strong enough to start laying eggs. This is happening right now, here in CA. A yellow jacket trap placed outside now might just catch queens, and prevent a hoard of worker wasps over the summer. The only one I've found that works is this one.
Another wasp that we often find around our homes and gardens is the Paper Wasp. These tend to make their nests under overhanging eaves. I have a group that nests every year in the shallow eaves under Adam's train shed. Paper wasps are great pollinators, but their true benefit comes from the fact that they are very efficient hunters of caterpillars, beetle larvae, and flies. They attack them and take them back to their nests to feed their young. They are aggressive if bothered, but mostly just stay to themselves. They don't care about our picnic dinners, which means they are very polite guests in the home garden.
Then there are all the myriad kinds of predatory wasps, most of which you'll never see, which parasitize caterpillars. This means they lay their eggs in the body of the caterpillar, which then hatch and consume the caterpillar from the inside out. Yuck, and cool!
So the next time you see a wasp of any kind in the garden, instead of freaking out, try to focus on the fact that they perform an important service for us. I'm not saying not to kill them; my patience is often tried to the limit with yellow jackets. But just give it some thought before automatically switching into 'destroy' mode.