Two weeks ago I was walking my dog in a natural area near our house, and all of a sudden he ran past me with yellow jackets attacking him. He was on a leash and so had not been far off the trail, but evidently had gotten into, or close to, a nest. The following day, I was cleaning out some nursery pots by our tool shed and evidently disturbed a nest of yellow jackets. I was attacked before I realized what I had gotten into and had four stings on my arms before I could get away.
For the past several years, yellow jackets have not been a problem at our house and I remember wondering why. Whatever the reason, this year is different. In addition to having a nest of yellow jackets by our tool shed, on the following day I was working in the garden and noticed a small hole in the ground and a yellow jacket going into it. I watched for a few minutes and realized that it was a nest and it was very close to our path. Yellow jacket nests are usually built underground and by the end of the summer, a single nest can have a hundred thousand or more bees.
The stings from yellow jackets are very painful and unlike honeybees that die after stinging, yellow jackets can sting more than once and stinging is not fatal to them. I have found that yellow jackets will sometimes sting without provocation whereas that is not my experience with honey bees. We have many honeybees throughout our garden and they seem quite peaceful and content to visit flowers for pollen and nectar. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, are primarily meat eaters but will also eat fruit. Many of us have probably had more than one experience with trying to eat outdoors only to have to move inside because of yellow jackets.
If you are allergic to bees or have any hesitation toward trying to get rid of a nest, call a professional exterminator to do the job. If you want to do it yourself and if you know where the nest is, there are aerosols that propel a jet stream of insecticide 15-20 feet so you can hopefully be a safe distance away from the nest. Be sure to buy an aerosol that specifically states that it will kill yellow jackets. Late evening is a good time to spray as the bees are calm and most of them will be in the nest. I did this last night with the ground nest that I found in our garden and one application seemed to eliminate it.
There are non-toxic yellow jacket traps available and these usually come with a synthetic attractant to lure the yellow jackets into the trap. Once inside, they cannot escape. These traps will tend to draw the worker bees and may provide some relief for a patio or eating area but they are not effective for area-wide nest control.
Some people are extremely allergic to yellow jacket stings and the venom can not only be painful but deadly in some cases. Especially at this time of year, be aware of your surroundings and use caution. Afterall, we do want to enjoy our outdoor spaces.