Photo by Dana Sphar

Photo by Dana Sphar

Are yellow jackets worse this year? Depends on who you ask

By Ann McCreary

Maybe they really are worse than usual, as some people claim. Or perhaps we just forget from one summer to the next how nasty they can be. In any case, people are talking about (and some are suffering from) the late summer yellow jacket boom.

Ricky Fletcher arms himself with a fly swatter as he sells fresh produce at the Smallwood Farms stand by Highway 20 on the west end of Winthrop.

“There are more of them and they’re more aggressive,” Fletcher said as he swatted away the pernicious yellow  jackets hovering over peaches, plums and pears.

“Last week I was stung 30 times, and 11 times in one day,” Fletcher said.

Yellow jackets swarm around recycling bins placed around the valley by Recycling Roundup. “They came on pretty fast,” said co-owner Casey Bouchard, who regularly collects the recycling.

“I have said a couple of times, ‘Wow, they’re really bad this year.’ But I think they’re probably bad every year,” Bouchard said.

Betsy Cushman of Methow Recycles in Twisp, the valley’s recycling center, said this year may seem worse by comparison. “I think it s pretty dramatic this year because the last few years have been so mellow,” Cushman said.


A banner, bumper year

According to the Washington Department of Natural Resources, “This year seems to be a banner year for yellow jackets, bald faced hornets, and similar stinging insects. It may be related to the cool, spring conditions that boosted the population of aphids, a popular food source for yellow jackets,” DNR said in an Aug. 28 statement.

The agency also sought to debunk a “persistent rumor … that DNR is intentionally releasing yellow  jackets as biological control agents to kill forest pests.”

That rumor probably stems from a release of tiny parasitic wasps in the late 1960s to combat a tiny caterpillar that defoliates western larch trees. That release 60 years ago was the last time DNR intentionally released insects, the agency said.

The Washington Trails Association noted on its website last week that there appears to be a “bumper crop of yellow jackets” judging by the number of hikers who have reported running into them “stinger side first.”

Yellow jackets become more populous and aggressive as the summer wears on, according to the Washington State University extension service: “Colonies attain maximum size in August and September. Worker yellow jackets, then at their peak, become pestiferous.”

Put more simply, they can really spoil a picnic or a dinner on the deck.

“It’s definitely been a difficult year, but I’ve seen years like this before,” said Stephanie Rodriguez, restaurant manager at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop. The restaurant has a large outdoor dining area on the Chewuch River.

“We’ve had customers stung and servers stung. People will want a new beer because a bee landed in their beer. There are some people, mostly families with kids, who come inside because the kids are scared,” Rodriguez said. “We have apple juice and apple sauce for kids. There was one week when we had to say, ‘We can’t serve those outside.’”

“It’s definitely worse than usual,” said Aaron Studen, owner of the Twisp River Pub, which has outdoor dining by the river. “There were a few weeks there where it was getting very difficult to seat people outside. Everything is fine until the food is served and then all of a sudden they are swarming. Normally it’s no big deal, people just move inside and they are happy to get away from the wasps, but when we have a full restaurant outside and there is nowhere for them to sit it can be a problem.”


Beneficial pests

Scholarly papers and gardeners note that yellow jackets are beneficial insects because they feed their young flies and insects that damage trees and crops. However, several species of yellow jackets scavenge for meat and sweets and become pests, especially at picnics and campgrounds.

Yellow jackets are not bees – as many people think – but wasps. According to the Audubon Society, colonies begin in spring when a queen wasp emerges from her wintering site under bark or in a rotting log. She feeds on nectar and insects and then searches for a site to build a nest and lay her eggs. Most yellow jacket nests are underground, made from wood and other plant material. When the first worker yellow jackets emerge, they take over the job of foraging and nest-building, freeing the queen to lay eggs.

By August, the numbers of foraging workers peak. As the colony starts to decline, the queens and males mate, and the queens go off to find an overwintering location. The colony dies out with the onset of winter. Only the queens live to begin the cycle again the following spring.

Because they live in colonies, yellow jackets are termed “social wasps.” That may sound like a misnomer to us humans, given their propensity to chase people down to inflict painful stings.

Unlike bees, a yellow jacket can sting multiple times. They will aggressively defend nests and, as they become more belligerent foragers in late summer, will fight back when people try to swat them away.

“Personally, I’d say they are nasty this year,” said Cindy Button, director of services at Aero Methow Rescue Service. She said Aero Methow has responded to a half-dozen calls this year involving a life-threatening reactions to stings, which is comparable to past years.

“The season is actually just starting, because September is usually the worst month,” Button said.

The wasps’ venom also is more potent later in the season, Button added. “That’s what I’ve always been taught. They also get more irritable.”

Local doctors’ offices regularly see people who are concerned about their reaction to a sting. “In late August and early September we see one or two a week,” said Julie Wehmeyer, a registered nurse at Methow Valley Family Practice. “From my perspective I think [this year] is pretty average.”


Don’t get stung – but know what to do just in case

The Washington Department of Health (DOH) advises taking the following take steps to avoid being stung by yellow jackets or other stinging insects:

• Avoid wearing bright colors or flower-patterned clothing.

• Avoid wearing fragrant perfumes, cologne, lotions, or hair products.

• Keep food and drink covered or under screens when eating outdoors.

• Clean up and dispose of food and garbage, including decaying fallen fruit, and dog or other animal feces.

• Stay calm and still if a single bee or wasp is flying around. Swatting may cause it to sting.

• If you are attacked by several stinging insects, run to get away from them.

• If a stinging insect flies inside your vehicle, stop the car slowly, and open all the windows.

It is widely advised that people avoid swatting or crushing yellow jackets against their bodies, because it may result in a sting. And yellow jackets may leave behind an alarm pheromone – a chemical that incites other yellow jackets to attack – when they sting or are squashed.

Typical symptoms of a sting are localized pain, swelling, itching and mild redness. Bees leave stingers in the skin, and wasps (including yellow jackets) occasionally do. If stung, DOH recommends:

• Remove the stinger quickly using gauze wiped over the area or by scraping a fingernail across the stinger. Quick removal means less venom injected.

• Never squeeze the stinger or use tweezers.

• Wash the site thoroughly with soap and water.

• Apply ice to reduce swelling.

• Take an antihistamine or apply creams to reduce itching if necessary.

• Watch for symptoms of infection over the next several days. Symptoms include increasing redness, swelling, or pain.

Allergic reactions to bee or wasp stings can be deadly. People with known allergies to insect stings should always carry an anaphylaxis kit and wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace stating their allergy, according to DOH. People should call 911 if any of the following signs occur:

• Trouble breathing, wheezing, or shortness of breath.

• Swelling anywhere on the face or in the mouth.

• Throat tightness or difficulty swallowing.

• Feeling faint or dizziness.

• Hives.

• Turning blue.