You know the scene: Summer’s winding down, and you’re enjoying a patio cookout or watching the kids play in the yard. You look up at your house, and you see... BEES! Honey, do we have a swarm of bees up there? What do we do? Call the exterminator? No, we want to save the bees! Go look up a beekeeper!
And when you reach the beekeeper, you get asked: Are you sure they’re honey bees, or are they yellow jackets? Because in August and September, they are almost always yellow jackets.
How do you know which one you have?
A Quick Primer on the Differences
First, a little background about these pollinators (which will be relevant, we promise).
Honey bees and yellow jacket wasps are both social insects, meaning that they live in groups, as opposed to solitary insects like mason bees.
Honey bees have eggs, larvae, and food stores in their hives almost all year-round. They don’t hibernate. They spend the winter snuggling together in a ball, sharing warmth and food as they protect the queen. There is only one queen per colony, and she lives three to five years.
Yellow jackets don’t store food; the nest is only for eggs and baby wasps. They hunt other insects for protein and feed that to the babies. In the early fall, the queen stops laying eggs. Some of these new wasps will become new queens, and once they complete their mating flights, they will find somewhere to hibernate (usually buried under or in something) for the winter. The rest of the workers die off when the weather gets too cold.
In the spring, honey bee queens start laying up a storm of eggs. If the hive feels too crowded, half the colony will split off and leave the hive, looking for a new home. This is a swarm. Beekeepers get calls all the time about swarms. We love this! We love helping out the community and relocating bees to a better home.
Yellow jacket queens will emerge from hibernation once it gets warm enough. A queen will find a nest location — usually a hole in the ground, but also trees, walls, or your eave or attic — and build a small nest. As she lays eggs and they mature into adults, the adult workers expand the nest so she has room to lay more eggs. At its peak, a yellow jacket nest can have 5,000 workers.
This is all to explain that yellow jackets didn’t move into your house while you were down the shore. They’ve been there since April. They just haven’t been a problem until now.
So Why Are the Yellow Jackets So Aggressive All of a Sudden?
In beekeeping terms, a dearth is when no nectar-bearing flowers are blooming. In New Jersey, this runs from about July 15 (when the summer flowers finish) to about September 15 (when the goldenrod and aster start). This obviously varies by location and weather, but it’s a rough guide.
At this point in the honey bee colony lifecycle, the bees are protecting their food stores (honey and pollen) and the brood (eggs and larvae). After the fall flowers begin blooming, the queen switches over to laying eggs which will become winter bees, which are a bit fatter and sturdier than summer bees. The queen and colony are working hard to make sure there are winter bees to carry the hive through the cold months, so they would only leave their hive box if conditions were intolerable. It’s not impossible for them to swarm, but it’s quite unlikely.
Yellow jackets are also affected by the dearth, but not in the same way.
When the nectar runs out in mid-summer, the queen stops laying eggs entirely. There are no more babies to feed, and no food to feed them. So now up to 5,000 wasps per colony are hangry and looking for a sugar boost. This is why they are now visible all over your house, and constantly attacking your burger and your soda.
If honey bees built a nest in your eave or attic at some point between April and June, they will still be out foraging in September, particularly once the goldenrod and jewelweed show up. That’s why people get confused between pissed-off wasps and intent but generally well-behaved honey bees: either one could be flying around your soffits.
Now we’ve established why it’s much more likely you have yellow jackets. But how do you know for sure?
How Can You Tell the Difference?
Honey bees are usually a warm amber yellow and dark brown, and fuzzy. You can see their legs under them when they fly. They tend to fly in loops, like a helicopter. They are generally not aggressive and will not sting you unless threatened. An individual honey bee can only sting you once.
Yellow jacket wasps are a bright crisp yellow and black, and smooth. They fly in straight lines and arcs like fighter jets. They can be quite aggressive, and a single yellow jacket can sting you multiple times.
What Do You Do?
First, don’t swat at them or wave your arms around. Either one makes you a target of interest or a potential threat.
Second, try to get some photos. Zoom in as close as you can. This may allow you to see more clearly which roommates you’ve acquired. (If you have binoculars, those will help too.)
If they’re yellow jackets, call an exterminator. Look, we appreciate pollinators, but even we don’t want tiny F-16s strafing us every time we go out to the garden.
If they do turn out to be honey bees, visit the swarm removal page on the NJ state beekeeping site. Enter your zip code and a radius, and you’ll get a list of beekeepers in your area to reach out to. Send your photo to your friendly neighborhood beekeeper and see what they can do for you.
Want to Learn More?
Read about bee swarms and check out our insect identification page to see other kinds of pollinators which may be in your yard. You’re always welcome to come to our club meetings to mingle and ask questions, even if you’re not a member.
“Yellow jacket.” Wikipedia
“Get ready, fall is yellowjacket season. But why?” NorthJersey.com
“Yellow jackets: Fall’s fearsome and feisty wasps that can sting repeatedly.” Washington Post
“5 Reasons Yellow Jackets Invade Your Property in Fall.” Quality Pest Ohio