"Bees" Nesting in the Ground? 'Wasp Out'—they might be Yellow-jackets!
Question. Mike: We have vegetables growing in an above ground garden made of logs. About six inches from one of the plants is the entrance to an underground bee's nest. Is there something I could just pour in there, like vinegar, that would get the bees without poisoning the soil? Thanks.
---Gary Herrmann; Bala Cynwyd, PA
I have a yellow-jacket nest under a decorative boulder in my front garden. One nailed me above the knee cap last Saturday. It felt like a 4-penny nail was stuck in there. I am against killing any bugs just for convenience sake, but I need to get rid of these pests. They are too darn dangerous. Any suggestions for an organic way to drive them away? Keeping it green...
---Rich Beaumont; Haycock Twp, Bucks County, PA
Mike: We have wasp-like insects (about 2" long with striped abdomens) living in perfectly round holes in the ground in our front flowerbeds. They make these piles of dirt that look like sawdust when they dig out their holes. They haven't tried to sting us, but they are right around the front door, and I'd love to get rid of them. They have been visiting us every summer for 3-4 years now. I try to fill in the holes in the fall, but no luck so far. Do you have any suggestions? Thank You.
---Cindy Lefkowitz; Havertown, PA
Answer. We get a lot of calls this time of year from anxious home owners about "ground nesting bees". There are two insects with stingers you might notice emerging from holes in your lawn or flowerbed right now, but neither are bees. (The only bees that nest in the ground are gentle pollinators that are only active in the Spring.)
If, like Cindy, the black and yellow insects you see are around two inches long, relax; those are the famous cicada-killing wasps and they have no interest in stinging you. The males don't have stingers, and the rarely-seen females often won't even sting when provoked! And besides, their season of dragging giant cicadas into those holes for their young to feed upon is almost done. To prevent their harmless presence NEXT year, keep your ground covered with plants or mulch; they only make their solitary nests in bare soil.
If those insects are under an inch long, however, do NOT relax. Those are yellow-jackets, a type of highly aggressive wasp, not a bee. Although technically beneficial because they eat pest insects, yellow-jackets are responsible for almost all of the so-called 'bee sting deaths' in the United States. They like to sting people, each insect can sting repeatedly, they generally attack in large numbers, and they can bite ya too. They are especially dangerous this time of year. Their nests have gotten HUGE, and the workers are on a constant prowl for food.
To keep individual wasps out of your outdoor areas, don't leave pet food or human food outside, and keep trash sealed tight. Oh and take it from me—always give opened cans of soda a little shake before drinking. Talk about ouch! And if you've got a nest in a frequently-used area, it must be destroyed. Insecticides—natural or organic—aren't recommended this late in the season; the nests are so big and intricate that the sprays can't reach the inner layers.
The best way I've found to destroy a nest is to smother it. Fill a wheelbarrow with a big load of ice (like from a motel ice machine—its just the right size) and quickly dump it over the hole on a cool evening after the scouts have gone inside for the night. The cold will prevent their attacking you. Then cover the hole and the area around it with a heavy tarp weighted down with bricks, a piece of sheet metal, a big wooden board or other heavy object. Then cover that with soil or wood chips. Or cover the hole with a thick piece of clear plastic, seal the edges tight to the ground, and the nest will cook in the sun once the ice melts. Be sure and pick a cool night when these dangerous wasps will be unable to respond quickly—and 'bee careful'!
Traps are the most effective way to capture yellow-jackets trying to muscle in on a picnic or other outdoor event—and they can also be used to cut the numbers in an underground nest. You can buy ready-made traps at any hardware store or make you own: Just remove the cap from a glass or plastic container, drive a single hole into it with a Phillips-head screwdriver, put a bit of bait in the container, and put the cap back on.
To keep the pests away from your picnic, place the traps on the outskirts of your outdoor area. To reduce the numbers in a nest, place lots of traps near the nest in the cool of the evening—when the wasps won't be active. Try two different kinds of bait—put some spoiled ham or smelly pet food in half the traps and some apple juice or a piece of rotting peach in the rest. Sometimes the pests want sugar, sometimes meat. Either way, they'll fly in for the food, but they won't be able to fly out.
Last year, an inventive YBYG listener told us that they had used one of those backyard bug zappers to destroy a nest. The listener simply set the zapper right near the entrance to the nest—again, always do this on a cool evening—and then turned it on. The aggressive wasps kept flying out trying to sting the zapper and were eventually all electrocuted. Finally—a good use for those otherwise useless zappers!
And just this year, we've heard from two different YBYG listeners-- Phil Getty from
New Hope, PA and Jim Lauther of Pine Hill, New Jersey—who used shop vacs to capture the pests as they flew out of their underground nests. Both attached their longest extension poles to the end of their vacuum hoses, positioned the poles close to the openings, turned the machines on and let them run. Both reported great success. (This is much the same solution the pros use when the pests build a nest in the wall of a house.) If you'd like to try it, position the hose of your shop vac right near the opening of the nest on a cool evening and then turn it on the next day.
Be sure to leave the vac on for a LONG time; there could be five thousand yellow's in a nest this time of year. Be sure to plug the hose right away when you're done so they don't fly back out and take revenge. Then leave the vac sit in the sun for a few days to kill the occupants.
[Note: I sent an advance copy of this answer to our three 'questioners' and JUST got this response back from one:"Read the article you sent about using a shop vac, and decided to give it a try. I stuck it on the opening, turned it on and ran away. Let it run for about an hour, then hit some wood near the nest with a hammer to make sure no more bees were in there, and none came out. Two days later, I opened up the shop vac and it was full of former bees. Very cool—and no poisons near the garden. Thanks very much for the advice; Gary Herrmann."
Thank You for the report, Gar!]
Sensational First Aid for ANY Sting!
Get a jar of Adolph's meat tenderizer and keep it nearby whenever you're outdoors. That way, if you DO get stung by one of these aggressive wasps, you can cure it instantly! Just wet the area, shake some of the Adolph's (or any papain/papaya-based meat tenderizer) onto the sting, cover it with a damp napkin or cloth and the same enzymes that break down tough cuts of meat will denature the protein-based venom. It'll be like you were never stung!
Of course, if you're allergic to 'bee stings', don't go anywhere without your emergency injector this time of year.
You Bet Your Garden ©2004 Mike McGrath