How to take on stinging insects and win
If yellowjackets, bees or wasps are ruining your fun at home, here's how to deal with them.
Nothing ruins an open house or takes the fun out of hanging out in the backyard quite like the "ouch!" of a sting from a bee, wasp or yellowjacket. Not only that, many of them can take up residence in the walls and eaves of your house.
And with spring upon us, your odds of finding the little (and not so little) guys has greatly increased as they emerge this season and begin to forage and build nests. (Bing: What's the best thing to do if you're stung by a bee?)
Most of these insects don't want to be "bugged," so leaving them alone is the ideal strategy, bug experts say. But sometimes that nest is unavoidable — dangling right over the front door, for instance.
What to do? Here are some common stingers and how to handle them.
1. Know your foe: Yellowjackets
© Jim Corwin/Corbis
Yellowjackets, a catch-all term for several species of wasps, are about a half-inch long with jagged bands of bright yellow. They frequently nest in ground cavities that once were rodent burrows, says Alan Eaton, an extension entomologist at the University of New Hampshire who has written about the insects (PDF). But they can also build papery nests in wall voids of buildings, as well as nests as large as basketballs in trees, Eaton says.
Why exorcise them: When people talk about stinging, flying insects, they're usually thinking of yellowjackets. They can form hives of between 1,500 and 15,000 insects, according to the University of California's Integrated Pest Management Program. What's more, these wasps can and do sting repeatedly when angry — and they defend their nests more aggressively than others.
Stake in the heart: "The first thing I say to somebody if they're trying to get rid of the nest is, No. 1, ask yourself if you really need to do this," Eaton says. "If it's not really presenting a threat, then it may be better to leave them alone" rather than deal with aggressive yellowjackets, he says.
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Next step: Cover or remove any food sources that seem to attract them, such as trash cans and pet food.
If the yellowjackets are causing real problems, spring is the best time to try to nip them in the bud, experts say. In spring there is a 30- to 45-day period when new queens first emerge before they build nests. Trapping queens during this period can reduce the yellowjacket population for the season.
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If a nest has already been built, however, here's what to do: In daylight, find the entrance to the nest and mark it in a way that will help you find it at night, Eaton says.
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"Return to do your dirty work at minimum two hours after dark, because if you're going to try to treat the nest — spray it or something like that — you want everybody to be home," he says of the insects.
"I often recommend that people bring a flashlight with a red light," or with a piece of red cellophane over the light, because yellowjackets can't see red. Tread softly and gently with a pressurized spray can of insecticide designed for wasps and hornets;
"The key word is that it should say wasp and hornet jet spray," Eaton says. "That means it shoots out a solid stream of material."
If you're dealing with a ground nest, sprays sometimes don't work because the actual nest is farther underground than the spray can reach; try pouring a quart of liquid wasp-and-hornet insecticide (approved for lawn and garden) down the hole, or pouring a half-cup of insecticide dust approved for the same uses down the hole's mouth, says Richard Houseman, state urban-entomology extension specialist for the University of Missouri who has written about controlling the insects.
After you apply pesticide, Eaton recommends pouring sand over the entrance hole to the nest and then skedaddling from the area; others advise putting a heavy bucket over the entrance hole so that any yellowjackets that emerge can't escape. Check back on the results in a day or two.
For aerial nests, spray the entrance hole from as far away as possible, "then stay away for at least a day," Eaton says.
For yellowjacket nests in a wall, it gets a lot trickier, says Jeff Hahn, an extension entomologist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in urban insects. Why? Because sprays or even insecticide "dusts" often don't reach back to the nest and can even push the yellowjackets deeper into a home, he says. This is a good time, he suggests, to call in the cavalry — in the form of a quality pest-control company.
A caution: Wear protective clothing, including eyewear and gloves, when battling yellowjackets, experts say.
2. Know your foe: Honeybees and bumblebees
© Christine Mariner/Design Pics/Corbis
Honeybees are about a half-inch long and are light brown to black. Bumblebees are up to an inch long and are often black and yellow. Both are quite hairy-looking compared with hornets and yellowjackets. Contrary to popular belief, these are among the least threatening of the stinging insects we're talking about.
Bumblebees like existing cavities (often on or near the ground) such as old mouse nests or even bird nests, Houseman writes.
Why exorcise them: Honeybees can be a nuisance in spring at birdfeeders and pools as they forage for water, Hahn writes. They're not often a problem later in the year, though they will sting in defense of the nest. However, they can also nest in hollow trees or in the wall of a house and cause problems when they create a hive in the latter. The queen bee and a few worker bees can also survive the winter.
Bumblebees are normally only a problem if the nest is close to human activity, Houseman says.
Stake in the heart: If the honeybees need to be dispatched — if they're in your walls, for instance — Houseman recommends injecting about four ounces of deltamethrin-based pesticide such as Delta Dust into the nest. You should repeat the treatment within seven days.
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You're not done: After the nest has stopped functioning, open the wall and remove everything — bees, honey, wax. Remains can attract pests such as mice and dermestid beetles, Houseman writes.
"Control of honeybee nests can be challenging," says Hahn, who recommends that a homeowner consider hiring a professional pest-management company or a beekeeper, who could corral the bees.
If you must control for bumblebees, spray or inject a powdered insecticide into the nest, Houseman writes. Hahn says another way to treat a ground nest is to pour soapy water into it. This, too, should be done after dark. Use a flashlight with a red lens or covered with red cellophane.