Do Yellow Jackets Die in the Winter? Find Out Their Fate

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Yellow jackets are a common sight during the warmer months, buzzing around gardens and parks. However, as winter approaches, these buzzing insects are often wondered about regarding their survival.

Most yellow jacket colonies die off in the winter, with the exception of queen yellow jackets that have mated in the fall. These queens overwinter as adults and create a new colony in the spring [^[1]^]. During the cold season, mated queens search for a protected site to spend the winter, such as a brush pile, hollow tree, or building [^[2]^]. The parent colony starts to decline rapidly in the fall, and the males that have successfully mated quickly die [^[3]^].

Yellow Jackets and Winter

Life Cycle

Yellow jackets are social wasps with an annual life cycle. In spring, queens that survived winter create a new colony by laying eggs which develop into worker yellow jackets, as mentioned by the University of Florida. As the summer progresses, the workers forage, collect other insects to feed their young, and expand the nest.

Unlike some insects, yellow jackets colonies die off in winter, leaving only the mated queens to overwinter and start a new colony next spring, according to OSU Extension Service.

Surviving the Cold

  • Queens: Mated queens find protected sites to hibernate, such as siding, wood piles, or underground spaces.
  • Workers: Workers, on the other hand, do not survive winter and perish when temperatures drop.

Comparing yellow jackets and honey bees in winter:

Yellow Jackets Honey Bees
Colony dies off Colony remains active
Only mated queens survive All members survive
Hibernate Cluster to stay warm

While yellow jackets can be mistaken for bees as they share similar functions, such as pollination and foraging for insects, it is crucial to understand their differences, especially during winter. Being aware of their life cycle and survival strategies can ease concerns, prevent habitat destruction, and promote a safer environment for both humans and beneficial insects.

Nesting Habits

Location

Yellow jackets typically build their nests either underground or in dark, protected spaces like tree stumps, hollow logs, attics, and manmade structures1. They can also be found nesting in the soil, especially in wet areas2.

Characteristics

Yellow jacket nests are made of a papery material, often grey in color, and can have exposed cells3. They have distinct characteristics based on their location:

  • Underground Nests:

    • Single entrance hole
    • Can be observed in the ground4
  • Above-Ground Nests:

    • Found in sheltered locations like tree stumps and hollow logs5
    • Generally referred to as “hornet” nests6

Pros:

  • Consume harmful insects
  • Beneficial to gardens and agriculture7

Cons:

  • Aggressive when disturbed
  • Their stings can be painful
Feature Underground Nest Above-Ground Nest
Location Ground, Soil Tree Stumps, Logs
Nest Material Papery Papery
Entrance(s) Single Varied
Cell Exposure Possible Possible

Yellow Jackets Inside Buildings

Reasons for Invading

Yellow jackets may invade houses or other manmade structures in search of a suitable nesting location, such as in attics or wall voids. They are also attracted to light and may enter indoors through windows or doors left open.

How to Prevent Entry

  • Caulking: Seal any gaps or cracks in your home’s exterior by applying caulk.
  • Entrances: Regularly check and repair any damage to doors and windows that can provide entrances for yellow jackets.
  • Exterminator: If you’ve spotted a yellow jacket nest in your house, call a professional exterminator who can safely remove it.

Comparison Table: Yellow Jackets Prevention Methods

Method Pros Cons
Caulking Cost-effective; Durable Requires regular inspection and maintenance; Can be time-consuming
Entrances Can prevent other pests; Improves home energy efficiency Can be expensive if replacing damaged doors or windows
Exterminator Professional; Safe Can be costly; May not prevent future infestations

Examples of common entry points for yellow jackets:

  • Damaged or loose window screens
  • Vents or openings in the attic or roof
  • Gaps around doors or windows

It is crucial to act promptly and prevent yellow jackets from invading your house as they can create nests inside, becoming a potential threat to occupants.

Behavior and Diet

Aggressiveness

Yellow jackets are known for their aggressive behavior, particularly when their nests are disturbed. For instance, if a person accidentally steps on an underground nest, yellow jackets will emerge, potentially stinging the individual multiple times. Their stings can be painful and, in some cases, lead to severe allergic reactions.

In late summer and early fall, yellow jackets become even more aggressive due to their increasing need for sugary food sources, such as nectar and sugary liquids. This aggressiveness can be dangerous for humans and other animals.

Yellow Jacket Food Preferences

Yellow jackets are opportunistic feeders, consuming a wide range of foods. Here’s a summary of their dietary preferences:

  • Insects: Flies, spiders, and caterpillars are primary prey for yellow jackets, making them beneficial around home gardens and commercially grown fruits and vegetables.
  • Sugary substances: In late summer and early fall, yellow jackets develop a strong appetite for sugar, feeding on flowers’ nectar and other sugary liquids. They will also scavenge for food in open trash cans, pet food dishes, and picnics.

Yellow Jacket Diet Comparison Table

Food Source Spring/Summer Late Summer/Fall
Insects ✔️ ✔️
Nectar/flowers ✔️ ✔️
Sugary Liquids ✔️
Open Trash Cans ✔️
Pet Food ✔️

Yellow jacket queens overwinter after mating, and in the spring, they create new colonies by laying eggs. The larvae that hatch from these eggs are fed by worker yellow jackets, who primarily hunt insects like caterpillars, flies, and spiders. During this time, their feedings may overlap with hornets who similarly target insects as food sources. Yellow jackets do not produce honey, unlike some other stinging insects.

In summary, yellow jackets are opportunistic feeders with aggressive tendencies, especially when defending their nests or searching for sugar-rich food sources in the late summer and early fall. They are both beneficial and potentially harmful, depending on their behavior and the circumstances surrounding their interactions with humans and other animals.

Control and Removal

DIY Methods

  • Spray: Use a yellow jacket insecticide spray directly on the nest entrance when the insects are less active, such as early morning or late evening. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

  • Lawnmower method: Run a lawnmower near the nest to create vibrations that can cause the yellow jackets to flee. However, this method may be risky, as it may provoke the insects to attack.

  • Container trap: Create a simple trap by suspending a container with bait, such as meat or sugary liquids, above a bowl of soapy water. The yellow jackets will be drawn to the bait, fall into the water, and drown.

When to Call Professionals

  • Fall nests: Yellow jackets are likely to be more aggressive during the fall season. It is best to call a professional exterminator at this time.

  • Location: If the nest is situated in a hard-to-reach area, such as under a bush, in a wall, or near flowers, a professional pest control service may be necessary.

  • Weather exposure: Yellow jackets may become more active and aggressive if their nest is exposed to harsh weather. In this case, calling a professional is a safer option.

DIY Method Pros Cons
Spray Effective and easy to apply Chemical exposure risks
Lawnmower method No chemicals required Risk of attack from yellow jackets
Container trap Non-toxic and environmentally friendly Time-consuming setup

Yellow Jackets’ Impact on Other Species

Competing with Bees

Yellow jackets are known to compete with various species of bees, such as honeybees, for food resources. Some of the main conflicts between these two insects include:

  • Food: Both yellow jackets and bees rely on nectar and insects as their primary food sources, leading to competition.
  • Aggressiveness: Yellow jackets can be more aggressive than bees when it comes to defending their territory, making it difficult for bees to coexist in the same area.

Example: Yellow jackets might invade honeybee hives to steal honey and larvae, further threatening the survival of honeybee colonies.

Comparison Table:

Yellow Jackets Bees
Size Smaller (~1/2 inch) Larger
Color Yellow and black Orange and black or yellow and black
Diet Insects, nectar, larvae, and fallen fruits Nectar and pollen
Aggression Generally more aggressive Less aggressive

Natural Predators

Despite their aggressive nature, yellow jackets have a number of natural predators:

  • Bald-faced hornets: These social wasps are known to prey on yellow jackets and their larvae.
  • Spiders: Various spiders, such as orb-weavers, trap and eat yellow jackets that get caught in their web.
  • Birds: Some bird species, like the European magpie, have been known to prey on yellow jackets.
  • Mammals: Moles, shrews, and even bats are known to prey on yellow jacket queens during their winter hibernation.

Characteristics of Natural Predators:

  • Bald-faced hornets: Large, aggressive, predominantly black with white markings
  • Spiders: Webs used for trapping prey, some species possessing venomous bites
  • Birds: Aerial predators, beaks adapted to prey on insects
  • Mammals: Opportunistic predators, mainly targeting queens during hibernation

By understanding the impact of these factors on yellow jackets, we can gain a better perspective on their role within the ecosystem and their interactions with other species.

Unique Cases

Florida’s Super Nests

In some regions, like Florida, yellow jackets are known to create super nests. These massive nests are rare but can host thousands of these stinging insects. A few factors contribute to their formation:

  • Milder winters, allowing colonies to thrive
  • Increased food sources (due to human activities)

The super nest phenomenon contrasts with the regular yellow jacket nesting habits, where most of the colony dies off and the mated queens hibernate during the cold months1.

Allergic Reactions to Stings

Yellow jackets are known for their aggressive behavior, especially when they feel threatened or their nest is disturbed2. People who encounter these insects should be cautious, as their stings can cause painful allergic reactions, sometimes even life-threatening. Some symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • Swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea
Non-allergic Reaction Allergic Reaction
Localized pain Systemic symptoms
Minor swelling Severe swelling
Redness Difficulty breathing
Itchiness Nausea

It’s essential to seek immediate medical attention if experiencing an allergic reaction to a yellow jacket sting3.

Footnotes

  1. Yellow Jackets – Gardening Solutions 2

  2. Yellowjackets | Home & Garden Information Center 2

  3. Getting Rid of Paper Wasps and Yellow Jackets 2

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Yellow Jackets – Gardening Solutions

  7. Yellow jackets | OSU Extension Service

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Widow Yellowjacket

 

Subject: Stinging Insect
Location: Black River Falls, WI
July 13, 2012 2:39 pm
What is this? I want to say yellow jacket, but I haven’t seen a nest or anything that would help identify it. I appologize for it being dead and slightly squashed. It did sting my daughter after my son got stung by a different one. We were outside for not even 5 minutes, just kicking a ball around when my son suddenly screamed get it off of me. I did try to find it on your site, but I was having issues finding an exact pattern match.
Signature: Dani

Widow Yellowjacket

Hi Dani,
We agree that this is a Yellowjacket, but we cannot be certain of the species.  The facial markings look similar to the Common Aerial Yellowjacket,
Dolichovespula arenaria, that is pictured on BugGuide, but we would rather have someone with more experience with Yellowjackets provide a definitive species identification.  We would also note that perhaps the most similar looking species is the Widow Yellowjacket, Vespula vidua, also represented on Bugguide.  Like other social wasps, Yellowjackets will defend a nest.  If both of your children were stung, there is a good chance that there is a nest nearby.  The nest of the Common Aerial Yellowjacket is usually above ground, often in trees, while the nest of the Widow Yellowjacket is often subterranean.

Widow Yellowjacket

was alot easier to find one that matched exact with the names. http://bugguide.net/node/view/439802  http://bugguide.net/node/view/447483
It looks exactly like these ones.  If I can find the nest, I’ll be sure to take some good photos for you.  It doesn’t look like you have many.
are they generally aggressive?  we really weren’t making a whole lot of noise.

We are happy to hear that in your opinion, the Yellowjackets are Widow Yellowjackets, a name BugGuide indicates is a result of the greater black areas in this species:  .  It is our experience that Yellowjackets are often curious about people, especially during picnics when there are trash cans nearby with fatty or sweet foods.  We have not had personal contact near a nest, but it is our understanding that they can be very aggressive if they feel the nest is being threatened.  I think the answer will be very clear to you when you discover where the nest is.  You should avoid the area.  The colony will die out with the frost and cold weather, and only new queens will survive to create a new colony elsewhere.  Some species of Yellowjackets in warmer climates have a nest that will last for several years instead of being an annual community.

Letter 2 – Yellowjacket Queens enter home in Pennsylvania

 

Subject:  are those eastern Yellow Jackets queens?
Geographic location of the bug:  Malvern, PA 19355 – USA
Date: 11/11/2017
Time: 03:19 PM EDT
I found 3 of those inside my house, on inital research it points that they are eastern yellow jackets and with the dots, they are queens, but what are the odds of finding 3 queens in 3 days?
How you want your letter signed:  Thiago Lopes

Yellowjacket Queens

Dear Thiago,
We believe the markings on these Yellowjackets are a closer match to the introduced German Yellowjacket Queen pictured on BugGuide.  Each fall, a nest of Yellowjackets produces multiple queens that mate and find a place to hibernate over the winter.  If your house was the nearest possible location for hibernation, and if it was especially inviting as well as providing an entrance for them, it is very possible that more than one queen would seek out your house as a potential site for hibernation.

Yellowjacket Queen

Letter 3 – Which Yellowjacket is it??

 

Subject:  Wasp or ?
Geographic location of the bug:  Andover, NJ
Your letter to the bugman:  I found a couple of these big wasps feeding on my mountain mint this morning and my first thought was “eastern yellow jacket”.  But as I looked closer, they don’t quite look right for the easter yj’s.  Any thoughts?  There were only two and they were very happy to nectar in among the bees and mason wasps.  No signs of aggression.
How you want your letter signed:  Deborah Bifulco

Possibly Common Aerial Yellowjacket

Hi Deborah,
After the last time we misidentified your Parasitic Yellowjacket, we demonstrated that we don’t really have much in the way of entomological chops.  According to BugGuide, in the subfamily Vespinae which contains Yellowjackets and Hornets, there are “22 spp. (of which 4 adventive or 2?) in 3 genera in our fauna” and many look remarkably similar.  This individual looks to us like it might be the Aerial Yellowjacket,
Dolichovespula arenaria, which is pictured on BugGuide, but it is not represented on Insect Identification for the Casual Observer using the New Jersey Hymenopteran filter.  Of the Common Aerial Yellowjacket, BugGuide states:  “They have mostly aerial nests, from a few centimeters above ground to the tops or trees, or houses or sheds. But in some cases they build nests under rocks or even underground.”  Does that look correct to you?  We can’t say for certain.

Possibly Common Aerial Yellowjacket

Hi Daniel,
I had actually wondered if it might be The Common Aerial YJ, but I just wasn’t sure.  I’m inclined to agree that this seems the most likely id for this big wasp.  Interesting, though, that Bugguide describes them as being primarily predatory and these were definitely after nectar, totally ignoring the many other tasty insects on the mint.
The mountain mint has yielded a couple of interesting feather-legged flies this morning so I’m going to take a crack at id-ing them, but may be back for an assist on one.  I also saw, for the briefest of moments  Great Black Wasp, which was thrilling.  She buzzed me a few times before taking off.  I don’t see them all that often here, so that was pretty exciting.
Best
Debbi

 

Letter 4 – Yellow Jackets

 

Carnivorous Hornets
Several weeks ago, I watched one of these insects carry away a chunk of grilled buffalo burger the size of its head. Upon returning from vacation, we found them ravaging our strawberry patch– they have a ferocious appetite and I assume their actions are reflective of the drought we are experiencing. I believe they are hornets since they have pointed abdomens and appear to lack pollen baskets. Nor do they resemble the paper wasps or mud daubers we have here in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota. Any ideas?Thanks
Jay

Hi Jay,
Yellow Jackets can be troublesome spoilsports at picnics, bar-be-ques, fairs and carnivals. They frequently swarm the trash bins for discarded food and sweets and they will sting.

Letter 5 – Yellow Jackets move into birdhouse!!!!!

 

Hello.
A friend directed me to your site. I have, what of course I think, are some interesting photos of a hornet’s nest being built over a birdhouse. Apparently, cold Minnesota winters warrant building nests with extra insulation! I am attaching one, but if you are interested in more, let me know. In this view you can see the hornet’s have are working on the nest and have built not only on the outside, but the inside as well. Enjoy.
D Rossbach

Hi D.,
Your photo is pretty great. The builders are Yellow Jackets. Mom in Ohio frequently gets paper wasp nests in her birdhouses. We have also gotten images of Red-Tailed Bumblebees building in birdhouses. Perhaps someone should market the wasp and bee house.

Letter 6 – Yellowjacket

 

Subject: bee vs wasp
Location: Saskatchewan, Canada
October 8, 2013 4:33 pm
Location: Saskatchewan, Canada
Season: October
Hello!
Let me first say, thank you for this website. You have saved me many panic attacks of ’what is the spider in the shower with me and will it kill me’ moments.
Now then, the age-old (laymen’s) question of is it a bee or a wasp.
The photos I am submitting are of a handsome fellow that represents the sort of company I keep during lunch every day. I find them to be quite harmless, rather sociable (sitting on my arm or leg to clean or check out what I am eating), curious and quite handsome (did I say that already?)
To me, this is a bee. I know, not a bumblebee and probably not a honeybee, but to me, this is a bee. Everyone else who sits with me says it is a wasp. Generally, three or four come to visit while we eat outside and I am the only one who is not bothered.
Bee or wasp? I’ll trust your final word.
Signature: Katherine

Yellowjacket
Yellowjacket

Hi Katherine,
This Yellowjacket is a social Wasp closely related to the Hornets.  Yellowjackets are often attracted to picnics and garbage cans with food where they feed on sugary liquids and they return with the nest with meaty proteins to feed the larvae.  See BugGuide for additional information.

Wonderful! Thank you for taking the time to answer me. 🙂
Since I am so popular with them, I was hoping for some sort of “bee whisper” title. But ‘Mother to Wasps’ works just as well. hahahah.
Thanks again!

Letter 7 – Yellowjacket

 

Subject: Yellow Jacket Type
Location: Stillwater, NY
August 2, 2017 9:30 am
Hello bugman,
Much thanks in your assistance here.
I have these under my deck in a really bad spot and they have already stung my dog.
I’d like to ID what type of yellow jacket they are. (If they are even yellow jackets that is)
Signature: manoktrain

Yellowjacket

Dear manoktrain,
This is a Yellowjacket, but we are not certain of the species.

Yellowjacket

Letter 8 – Yellowjacket from the UK

 

Subject:  Is there a special name for this unusual wasp?
Geographic location of the bug:  Manchester, UK
Date: 08/22/2019
Time: 03:24 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Dear Bugman,
A friend of mine saw this wasp a few days ago and thought it was unusual, so he decided to take a picture. He has red feet and a bit of a long nose (the wasp, not my friend). I think he just looks like a normal wasp, but my friend wonders if there’s a special name for him.
Is he special? Or just a run-of-the-mill wasp?
How you want your letter signed:  The person who asked you about a boxelder bug 15 years ago

Yellowjacket

Dear person,
This looks to us to be a Yellowjacket.  According to CountryFile:  ”  What is the most common wasp species found in the UK?  The wasp in question is the yellowjacket (
Vespula vulgaris), the black and stripy species you often find yourself swatting away. The reputation of this and a few other species has tarred that of another 200,000.”  Social wasps like the Yellowjacket sting much more readily than do solitary wasps.  If we identified a Boxelder Bug for you 15 years ago, you have a very long history with our site.

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Yellow Jackets

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