Eating lunch with my wife at her workplace a week ago, I was able to closely observe the late summer foraging habits of common Yellow Jacket Wasps. Yellow Jackets, or yellowjackets, (either is correct), are a force to be reckoned with as high summer starts to give way to fall. Predators, yellowjackets are attracted to meat, sweet things, bright colors, and even perfumes. These colonial wasps build paper nests either in voids in building structures, as in the case of the introduced German Yellowjacket, Vespula germanica or in nests underground or in trees or shrubs as in the case of our native Eastern Yellowjacket Vespula maculifrons.
As my wife irritatedly waved her hands around her face and head in attempt to dissuade the advances of numerous yellowjackets, I sat calmly, not caring so much about the persistent close fly-bys of the wasps. As one half of my turkey sandwich sat in it's plastic container, my attention was captured when I observed a wasp land on the meat portion of the sandwich. As I watched, the wasp began consuming the turkey lunch meat. After a few mouthfuls, it left, no doubt to take it's meal back to the nest in order to feed some of the last few larvae to be hatched out from the final brood of the summer.
I tore out the section of wasp-eaten turkey and placed it in the lid of my sandwich container, hoping to observe more of this scavenging behavior. Sure enough, in a couple minutes another wasp settled on the lump of turkey and began consuming mouthfuls of my donation.
Curiously, at least two separate wasps landed on the meat and eventually carried away visibly large pieces of meat in their mandibles. In an effort to draw a few more wasps away from flying around our heads, I decided to lure them with an offering from our soft drink. In true Roman fashion, I poured out a libation to the wasp gods and watched as several of them landed and proceeded to fill up on the sugary soft drink.
Many sources now note that German yellowjackets have spread from beyond urban areas and are now supplanting Eastern yellowjackets as the predominant species in more rural areas as well, probably due to their more aggressive nature. In spite of their pugnacious nature, and their insistence on turning any late summer outing into a festival of arm waving and swearing, I still find them fascinating creatures. The wasps we see clustering around the garbage cans and invading our fizzy drinks, and yes, even helping themselves to our sandwiches, are the last broods of the summer.
Almost all wasps and bees that we see are female workers gathering food to bring back to feed to larvae at their nest. In the case of the yellowjackets, some of those larvae will grow up to be reproductive females who will overwinter and start new colonies in the spring. The current wasps that menace our picnics and outdoor entertainment venues are almost all destined to die in a few short weeks when the first cold snaps of winter begin to hit. The queens who have dutifully laid thousands of eggs (sometimes as many as 40,000 in a season), will soon die off themselves. Those queens will be survived by their fertile offspring who will overwinter, start colonies of their own come spring, thus continuing the cycle.