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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

A really ugly fish makes a tasty treat

No One Wants To Wear This Yellowjacket

Nothing messes up a picnic or day at the playground faster than unwanted guests like yellowjackets. Once they find your food, drinks or trash, these black-and-yellow fliers will hang around all day hoping to grab a sweet-tasting snack!

In fruit orchards, yellowjackets can be more than just pests. They can interfere with picking the ripe fruit. No one wants to work in the trees if they’re constantly getting stung. If an orchard worker accidentally bumps into a nest, hundreds of the insects might try to sting the worker to defend their nest. And a small number of people can get very sick if a bee, wasp or yellowjacket stings them.

Do you know the differences between honeybees and yellowjackets? Honey bees eat pollen and nectar from flowers.Yellowjackets eat other insects, meat and sugary substances. Honey bees make their nests from wax that they produce. Yellowjackets make their nests from wood fibers mixed with saliva. Honey bees help agriculture by pollinating crops and making honey. Yellowjackets help agriculture by eating insects harmful to crops like caterpillars, flies and grasshoppers.

With all this trouble, then why does ARS entomologist Peter Landolt in Wapato, Wash., want to attract yellowjackets along with their stinging cousins: wasps and hornets?

“If we can lure the yellowjackets into a trap, we can prevent them from hanging around picnics, orchards or other areas where we don’t want them,” Landolt says.

An entomologist digs up--sometimes literally--all kinds of information on insects, because these six-legged critters affect just about every aspect of agriculture--as well as daily life. So it's important that entomologists know all they can about insects: the good, the bad and the painful bugs.

Keeping yellowjackets at a distance sounds like a no-brainer. So why not just put some fruit juice in a trap and wait for the yellowjackets to show up? It’s not that simple. Sweet foods like fruit would also attract honey bees. And orchard owners want honey bees around, because they pollinate the fruit trees.

Some yellowjackets like meat, but that rots too fast to make a good bait. Some chemicals attract the insects, too. But until now, scientists didn’t have one that appealed to the five peskiest species of yellowjacket in the United States.

Landolt found a great chemical combination to attract his targets--by accident!

He was actually developing a lure to trap codling moths. When one of these moths is a young caterpillar, its goal is to be the worm in someone's apple!

Landolt tried using various chemicals found in sweet foods like molasses and rotting fruit. One is acetic acid, which you know as vinegar. Another is a chemical called isobutanol. But with the acetic acid and isobutanol combo, they found not just moths in their traps--also yellowjackets!

Further testing showed that the combination attracted most species of yellowjacket pests, as well as some species of wasps and hornets. Now Landolt is working with a company in Washington state to develop the best container for the chemicals to serve as a trap.

If you don't have a trap, what should you do if one of these pests is trying to share your lunch?

Should you run away as fast as you can? No! Quick, jerky motions make them more likely to sting.

Should you swat the insect?

Bad idea! Don't crush them. Smashed yellowjackets give off alarm pheromones, or special odors, that will cause more yellowjackets to attack.

Should you stay calm?

Right! Moving away slowly won't stress out a yellowjacket, so it'll be less likely to sting.

--By Kathryn Barry Stelljes, formerly Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 5/4/2009
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