The Buzz on Yellow Jackets

NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Lafayette College biology professor Chuck Holiday about Yellow Jackets, which are making the rounds right now to a picnic near you.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's officially autumn, the season when yellow jackets pester picnickers and swarm around trashcans and occasionally make their way into a soda can or two. If one of your outdoor activities hasn't been hampered by these pests just yet, well, just you wait.

Joining us now is our favorite insecti-scholar, Lafayette College biology Professor Chuck Holliday.

Professor, thanks for coming back. Bug us. Tell us about yellow jackets. Well, I mean it's not summer, so why do they come out now? Why do they proliferate?

Professor CHUCK HOLLIDAY (Lafayette University): Well, it's particularly because it isn't summer. What happens is the nests are founded every spring, either in the air with a paper covering, or more commonly in the Northeast underground by females that have over-wintered. In August, the individual nest have gotten quite large and it's beginning to get out of control, and insect availability goes down. So what happens is the wasps start getting desperate and they start using road kill...

SIMON: Oh.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: ...they'll use your sandwich at the picnic. They'll even land on you and try to take a bite out of you.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: So a lot of people who think they've been stung by yellow jacket have actually just been bitten. When they swat the yellow jacket, then they get stung too.

SIMON: It seems to me I have memories of when I was like six or seven years old, and on a summer night having a popsicle and being pursued on the street by a veritable armada of yellow jackets.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: That's right. They probably...

SIMON: Probably only two or three, but...

Prof. HOLLIDAY: Well, the popsicle attracted it by its smell, but also your movement. The yellow jackets are pre-coded, so to speak, to go after things that move. And if one of them stings you, she leaves a little sting-here smell on you that tells all of her sisters, within about 30 feet, fly to the source of this and sting. So the trick is not to run, if you can possibly avoid it, and certainly don't let them get on you long enough to put that chemical on you, because then you'll attract quite a few more.

SIMON: If you discover that you have a yellow jacket hive in your lawn, under the porch, in your Mixmaster in the kitchen, whatever - how do you go about getting rid of it?

Prof. HOLLIDAY: Well, if you're in Germany, you don't, because there's up to 50,000 euro fine. That's about $64,000.

SIMON: Why?

Prof. HOLLIDAY: They're considered to beneficial insects, and they are, because they are hunting lots of noxious bugs in your yard.

SIMON: Oh, all right.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: But if you have a wasp allergy, or you just can't stop your little boy from poking sticks in it and he keeps getting stung or something like that, the best thing to do is wait till dark and go down to the liquor store before it closes and buy a...

SIMON: This is getting into something about yellow jackets, isn't it?

Prof. HOLLIDAY: Yes, it is.

SIMON: Okay. All right. Yeah.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: You buy a pint of EverClear, the 95 percent alcohol that you used to spike punch with.

SIMON: I truly do not know that.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: That's right.

SIMON: Any years, vintage, that you recommend of EverClear?

Prof. HOLLIDAY: The oldest you can buy is about a month, Scott.

SIMON: Okay, I get it now.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: Anyway, you pour that down the hole of the yellow jacket nest and you stomp it closed or you put a stick in it, and it will just kill them all.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Well, Chuck, always nice talking to you.

Prof. HOLLIDAY: Good to talk to you, Scott.

SIMON: Lafayette College biology Professor Chuck Holliday speaking with us from Easton, Pennsylvania.

And this is NPR News.

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