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Yellowjacket Nest? 'Clean it Up' Without Turning to Terrible Toxins

Question. While I was digging in the garden this past weekend, bees swarmed up from the soil and made it clear they didn't like me in their turf. Do you know of any kinds of bees that make their home in the ground?

    ---Randy in Maryland; a.k.a. "Six stings in Silver Spring"
Answer. Yes Randy; unlike the imported honeybee, which lives in man-made hives (with the occasional foray of an escaped colony into an old decayed tree or the side of a home), many native bees DO nest in the ground. But these superb pollinators of garden plants are mostly active in such nests in the Spring, and your missive was sent in late summer. And native bees are always gentle and non-stinging, while your unwanted under grounders appear to have tuned you up pretty good.

That adds up to you instead having a yellow jacket nest. These highly aggressive wasps (technically in the hornet family) can look a lot like bees—especially when you're busy creating interesting new curses while running away from them at high speed after being stung. And the underground nests of yellow jackets generally become obvious in the late summer, when those nests have typically grown to contain thousands of the dangerous creatures, each of which can sting repeatedly, likes to sting repeatedly, and uses powerful pheromones to call all the other yellow jackets to come and pile on after they begin to sting you repeatedly. It's a potentially deadly combination; virtually every so-called bee sting death in the United States is actually due to yellow jacket attack.

Question. I'm fairly certain I have a yellow jacket colony next to a tree in my front yard. I was mowing, ran over a hole and got stung twice. I've heard you recommend getting a professional exterminator to handle this situation. Is there a firm you would recommend?

    ---Gary in Northern Virginia
Answer. Yes, Gary; ANY firm that will vacuum them out of the ground. Toxic insecticides are useless in this situation, as the massive underground nests of these hornets are of a design that sheds liquids off to the sides. (Which explains why they don't all just drown in the first heavy rain.) So reject any firm that wants to come and spray; there's a good chance the insecticide they'd use would harm you more than the wasps. If you can't find an exterminator willing to use a high-powered vacuum, contact your local beekeeping society. Some beekeepers have this kind of equipment handy for sucking escaped feral colonies out of the house walls they occasionally occupy.

And if you're careful (promise me you'll be careful!), you can even do it yourself. Drop the hose of a shop vac or an old canister-type vacuum cleaner next to the hole in the middle of the night when the guards will either be deep inside or slow to react. (The cooler the air temperature, the more wiggle room you'll have.) Then turn the machine on the next morning; these aggressive wasps will attack the hose and get sucked inside. Let the machine run all day—remember, you might need to suck up thousands of the stingers before you empty out the nest. Then plug the vacuum hose with duct tape BEFORE you turn the machine off. Then let the machine sit in the sun for a few days before you open it to dispose of the used-to-be-wasps.

But plug the hole to the nest right after you turn off the machine if you can; the queen will still be down in there, giving birth to new workers every day. You'll find details on how to do this safely in this previous Question of the Week. This 'ice and tarp trick' also works well all by its lonesome when the hole leading to the nest is in an open area; I've used it successfully several times


Luckily, I have an old beat-up canister vac that I keep around for just such a purpose. It took a few days of repeated vacuuming for a couple hours a day, but I got rid of the entire nest without being stung once. OK—I was stung once; but that was my fault and not related to my sucking up the suckers. It happened when one landed in my hair while I was working in the garden and I brushed it away without thinking.

If you use a canister vac, start with a clean bag to insure the best suction. And then make sure you keep the machine turned ON when you open it up to seal the bag shut for disposal, no matter how long you've had it sitting in the sun. These creatures can be relentless, and you need to use every caution possible.