Garden Plot: The best way to get rid of yellow jackets

Our recent Japanese beetle suggestions stirred up a lot of comments. Here’s a final suggestion on their control from Carol in Princeton, New Jersey — who picked up on the discussion online.

She writes: “The instructions on commercial Japanese beetle traps emphasize that you have to change the bag often or the smell of the dead beetles will repel the living ones. I decided to try and use that to my advantage. When a trap bag got full, I let the beetles in it die, punched some holes in the bag, pounded it a bit, and hung it on the cherry tree they were destroying. Complete success; there are no beetles attacking the tree. Now I’m going to trap some more and hang their corpses on my rose bushes!”

Good old New Jersey Justice. Maybe N.J. should change their motto from “The Garden State” to “We know how to make problems go away.”

Time for our annual yellow jacket alert

I always beg our listeners to ignore ground nesting insects that look like bees in the spring. These are harmless native bees; they don’t sting and they’re great pollinators.

Once we get deep into July, ground nesting insects that look like bees are not bees; they are dangerous yellow jackets—highly aggressive members of the hornet family that like to sting, can sting repeatedly and inject you with a pheromone that entices other yellow jackets to come sting you as well.

If you stumble upon a nest — an unfortunately common occurrence while mowing or weed whacking — and get stung repeatedly, seek immediate medical attention, especially if you experience symptoms beyond the pain of the individual stings, like difficulty breathing. Virtually all of the so-called “bee sting deaths” in the United States are the result of yellow jacket attacks, so you should take such an attack very seriously.

If you just get stung once and you’re not bee-sting allergic, pour some meat tenderizer containing papain or papaya onto a damp washcloth and press it onto the sting; the papaya extract will neutralize the venom and the pain will disappear in minutes.

And yes, this means you should have a jar of powdered meat tenderizer on hand during the summer months. We use Adolph’s; it works on any wasp, hornet or honeybee sting. There are other good brands; just make sure the one you choose has ‘papaya’ or ‘papain’ on the ingredient list.

Bowl them for a strike

They may look like bees, but ground nesting yellow jackets are actually members of the hornet family. Their large numbers and unmatched aggression make them extremely dangerous, especially when you get near their underground nests.

If you see yellow jackets coming and going out of a single hole on relatively flat ground, you’re in luck. Get a large glass bowl and use it to carefully cover the hole first thing on a cool morning, when the cold weather keeps them inside the nest or moving very slowly outside of it.

Never approach a nest in the heat of the day or even on a warm evening — and always have a helper standing by with a can of cooking spray — like Pam — to soak any hornets that do try to get near you. Oil sprays are safe for you, and highly effective against all insects. (True horticultural oils are one of the mainstays of organic pest control.)

Leave the bowl in place and the yellow jackets will die out. They can’t dig a new entrance/exit and will be trapped inside. (Surprisingly, these underground nesters are not burrowing insects. The queen always begins a new nest in the spring by using an existing mouse or vole hole.)

Go like the pros and vacuum them out

Yellow jacket nests are pretty dangerous, and people often suffer severe stings while trying to eradicate them with pesticides (which don’t work, thanks to the clever design of the underground nest, which sheds pesticides and other liquids).

Now, there’s no shame in calling an exterminator to handle this dangerous task. In fact, if you’re bee-sting allergic or the idea just makes you plain ol’ nervous, I insist. Safety first, WTOPers! Just be sure to seek out an exterminator who will use a professionally made vacuum to suck out the nest. It’s the safest and most effective method. (Professional beekeepers often have similar equipment for sucking feral honeybee colonies out of the occasional side of a house.)

If you’re comfortable trying it yourself, place the hose of a canister vacuum containing a new, empty bag next to the entrance hole on a cool early morning, plug it into a grounded outdoor outlet and then turn it on when the day gets warm. The aggressive yellow jackets will emerge to attack the noisy thing until they’re all sucked up and trapped inside.

Tape the hose opening closed before you turn the machine off and then tape it some more. Leave the machine sitting in the sun for a day or two before you dispose of the bag (which you will also tape closed after removal).

And yes, this works. I have an old canister vacuum that I keep for just this purpose. It’s sitting out in the sun right now with the hose taped shut and several hundred angry hornets inside.

Finally, the right kind of bug to zap

Yellow jacket nest on your property? It’s much too dangerous to ignore, but yellow jacket attacks kill dozens of people every year.

A great alternative to vacuuming them out of their nests — especially when the hole is hard to locate — is to place a bug zapper near their nest entrance. You know, one of those glowing devices that’s supposed to lure and electrocute mosquitoes? Well, the zappers don’t do that (mosquitoes are not attracted to them), but if you can safely get it near the nest, the aggressive wasps will attack this glowing, sizzling ‘intruder’ until the last yellow jacket is dead.

Just remember to only approach the nest in cool weather, to always have a helper right next to you ready with a can of Pam to spray any emerging yellow jackets (just in case) and to plug the device into a grounded outdoor outlet.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

© 2015 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up