by Beth Weiler
Eastern Yellowjacket, Vespula maculifrons
This week’s featured insect is a familiar species with a bad reputation – the Eastern yellowjacket, Vespula maculifrons. V. maculifrons is one of many species of yellowjackets in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula. Pictured is a Queen yellowjacket searching for a suitable nest location.
Like many wasps, yellowjackets are nearly universally loathed, which pains me. Their stings also pain me; I don’t deny that they hurt! However, much like every other critter that we share space with, yellowjackets are just out there doing their job…which is to cruise around eating billions of pest larvae (various caterpillars, beetle grubs, and more) that would otherwise wreak havoc on our gardens, crops, and ecosystems. Far from just being aggressive monsters out to hurt us, wasps are actually incredible hunters that keep pest populations in check for us – cabbage worms for example. Without wasps, cabbage worms would be free to wipe out crops of cabbage, broccoli, collards, kale, and more!
To take a break from their busy hunting and scavenging activities, yellowjackets often sip sugary nectar from flowers and manage to pollinate some in the process, meaning that wasps also assist with pollination. If you ever see them out having a drink of nectar, they’re quite docile and will likely not even notice you. This offers a good opportunity to observe their complexity and unique markings up close without the risk of their defensive behavior.
The takeaway: wasps are vital to our ecosystems. Inevitably many queens who choose to begin a nest on or in human structures are doomed to be sprayed and removed. A sad reality, but having been stung numerous times by defensive hornets and yellowjackets near doorways, it’s one that I understand. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to appreciate their roles in our ecosystems and what beautiful insects they are! Yellowjackets and other wasps are a help to us, are striking and unique, and have complex, interesting life cycles. They are worthy of appreciation as much as any beautiful butterfly or cute, fuzzy bee.