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Question: I've recently noticed a lot of bees near my flower bed, just steps away from my front door. They fly into a hole in the dirt and then more come out. I didn't know that honeybees nested in the ground. I'd feel bad pouring chemicals in the ground to kill them but I'm very allergic to bee stings. Any advice?
---Jennifer in Silver Spring
Answer: You wish they were bees, Jenn. Now, if this were Spring and the 'bees' were flying into individual holes in the ground, they would be gentle, non-stinging native bees. Honeybees are not native (they're from Africa), feral honeybee colonies are rare (most honeybees live in man-made hives) and honeybees never nest in the ground.
This time of year (late summer/early fall), lots of insects that look like bees coming and going from a single hole in the ground indicates a yellowjacket nest. There are hundreds of highly aggressive stinging hornets down there—and poisonous chemicals won't destroy the nest because of how it's constructed.
Stop using that door if you can, and arrange to have someone eradicate the nest safely and effectively. (A truly professional exterminator will use a specialized vacuum to suck the wasps out of the nest.) Don't go near it yourself—virtually all so-called 'bee sting' deaths are actually caused by yellowjackets. These hornets like to sting, can sting repeatedly, and when they sting they inject you with a pheromone that entices other yellowjackets to come after you.
Luckily, you can use their innate meanness against them—by tricking them into flying into a bug zapper or the hose of a shop vac. These wasps are so hard wired to be super-aggressive that they attack those noisy machines until the last wasp is gone. Non-allergic listeners who want to try and eradicate a nest 'electronically' can find all the details in the yellowjacket articles at our website's "A to Z Answers" section…
And a listener named Larry in Delaplane, Virginia recently added an 'off the grid' option. He writes: "I live out in the country, and my yellowjacket nests aren't always within the reach of an extension cord to power the machines you recommend. So I use a method I picked up years ago from Mother Earth News. On a cool night, when all the yellowjackets have returned to the nest, cover the hole with a Mason jar or large glass bowl. Make sure it's pushed down hard into the dirt and not just resting on the grass. In about three days, they'll all be dead."
An old trick and a good one, Larry! You need just a nice level area around the hole, a very cool night and nerves of steel.
But what if you don't know where the hole is? That's the question posed by Kirsten in Stafford, Virginia, who writes: "Yellowjackets are congregating on three crepe myrtles in front of our house. Their population is increasing, we're scheduled to have new windows installed directly above these shrubs in a month, and I don't know where the nest is located. Is there anything we can do to ensure the safety of the installers?"
Keep looking for the nest! Otherwise, your best hope is to hang a number of wasp and hornet traps in the area. These are simple devices you'll find at any hardware, home or garden store; the yellowjackets fly in but can't fly out. The best baits are canned cat food or spoiled ham when the wasps are after protein and overripe fruit when they're after sugar. Hang several traps containing each kind of bait in the area—and delay the installation if their numbers don't decline.
And finally, we have yet another wasp question! ('Tis the Season….)
Dakota Rose in Washington, DC writes: "My wasps aren't in the ground; they've nested in a crack in my window sill! They are mean, they sting, and the sting welts up and lasts for days. How can I get rid of the nasty things without setting fire to the house?"
Ha! Put down the flame thrower, DK! And get some horticultural oil—or even a big can of no-stick cooking oil spray, like PAM—and approach the area slowly, spraying any visible wasps as you go. Then have someone else carefully open the window, while you protect them and yourself by soaking any wasps that emerge with the spray. As with our yellowjacket nest advice, do this when the weather is cool, so the wasps will be moving slowly. Then thoroughly soak any nests you see with the spray. Really saturate them.
Oil sprays are a great way to handle paper wasps and mud daubers, who often nest in eaves, shutters and other areas in or around homes. As with insecticidal soaps, the sprays cover and suffocate the insects. No fire necessary!