It’s like the script of a 1950s B horror movie.
Hundreds of thousands of stinging, ill-tempered insects building massive nests taking over sheds and the nests growing as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. No, it’s not “The Bugs That Take Over Buzzard Gulch”. It’s just an atypical Alabama summer when the yellow jackets are having a really good year.
And this year may be one of those summers. Conditions are lining up for a repeat of 2006, when larger than usual yellow jacket nests became the norm, said Dr. Charles Ray, an Auburn University entomologist with the Alabama Cooperative Extensive System.
In 2006 there were more than 90 of the super nests reported in the state, he said. Mild winters and plenty of food mean colonies don’t die off over the winter. The nests can survive into the next year, becoming “perennial” nests, he said.
A normal yellow jacket nest may see 4,000 to 5,000 of the insects. The perennial nests can see three to four times that many. A perennial nest in South Carolina was killed several years ago and 250,000 insects were counted in its remains, he said.
“These perennial nests may be several feet wide and have many thousands of workers, far more than the average nest,” Ray said. “We have found them attached to home exteriors and other places that you might not expect to find yellow jackets.
“The most workers I have counted in a perennial nest is about 15,000, or about three to four times more than a normal nest.”
So far this year there have been two confirmed massive nests in May.
“This puts us several weeks earlier than in 2006 when we identified the first giant nest on June 13,” he said. “If we are seeing them one month sooner than we did in 2006, I am very concerned that there will be a large number of them in the state. The nests I have seen this year already have more than 10,000 workers and are expanding rapidly.”
Yellow jackets are predatory wasps, so named because the most common species in the country have black and yellow bodies, according to the Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Insects. They are cavity nesters, generally building their colonies underground. Their stings are painful, and since the normal nests have 4,000 to 5,000 bugs, if the nest is disturbed, multiple stings are possible.
The monster nests can have multiple queens, all contributing to the growth of the colony, Ray said.
“A normal nest can produce 4,000 queens at the end of the fall,” he said. “That number sounds tremendous, but when you consider 3,999 of the queens don’t survive the winter to start a new colony in the spring, you see the kind of attrition we are dealing with.”
Along with mild winters leading to the big nests, the colony also has to have enough food to survive the winter to thrive in spring. Young yellow jackets are fed spiders and insects by workers in the colony.
“This food must be within flight distance of the nest,” Ray said. “So you can imagine the effort it takes to keep a nest of 15,000 insects going.”
If you find a large nest, or any nest for that matter, it’s not a “Hold my beer and watch this” moment. Professional help should be sought, said Steve Fitts, manager of Selma Pest Control.
“We haven’t had any calls about larger than normal nests this year, but we did have several large nests we dealt with in 2006,” he said. “Our guys have protective clothing they wear when they are dealing with stinging insects. We like to get away as far as possible and hit the nest with a high-pressure hose. That way we are breaking up the nest at the same time.
“If that’s not possible the guys will pull up close in the truck and roll the roll down the window just enough and shoot the pesticide from inside the cab.”
The possibility of bigger nests this year isn’t a welcome sign, he said.
“I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but the bigger nests tend to have more aggressive insects,” Fitts said. “Or maybe it just seems that they are more aggressive because there are so many of them.”