By far, the most effective way to eliminate Yellow Jackets is to spray the crap out of them with neurotoxins. No question. But if you’re in a situation where that’s not appropriate – at the lake on a sunny summer day, say – where spraying pyrethroids and pyrethrins might be considered gauche, then decisions must be made. It turns out, those decisions must be made quickly.
Options are few.
One can hang wasp traps, which work a little, but don’t really solve the problem. You can just not go outside, but that’s letting the little buggers win, and is also not really a solution. I imagine a person could sit around in personal bee-keeping attire, but that seems excessive and impractical.
A strategy that is lore in my family comes from a time when fishing was a more common past-time for my ancestors. Apparently, my great-grandfather and his buddies would set out a bucket of dead fish that had been sitting in the sun all day some distance from any revelry and burger consumption. Yellow Jackets would be drawn by the odors of rotting fish like zombies to brains, and thus leave the enjoyers of marvelously mild summer lake evenings blissfully alone.
I don’t know if this story is true or apocryphal, but it is true that the problem of Yellow Jackets always seems to come up out at the lake. They’re often not super aggressive. Like us, they just love the smell of food. Invariably, a few minutes after sitting down, you’ll hear the little buzz of those yellow and black suckers, or more likely, you’ll feel a thwap on the back of your head as one loses its way and its senses to the drunk-inducing aromas of a freshly grilled burger.
I have it on good authority that my own father was one to simply brave the wasps and just endure. This strategy would be accompanied by periodically swatting one out of the air like a giant anti-aircraft battery. Killing wasps one at a time with bare hands isn’t super effective, but it is pretty bad-ass. When I think of my father, I think of a soft-spoken man of great intelligence. I do not typically think of a man who, with precision and extreme prejudice, curmudgeonly swats Yellow Jackets out of the air like they are gnats, but there you go. You never really know a person.
My time as an organic farmer taught me a great deal about Yellow Jackets and how to address them. Using wasp spray would definitely be a violation of Organic standards, and so was never an option. Wasps there tended to congregate in our high tunnels, making it impossible for anyone to work nearby. It would invariably fall to me to remediate the situation.
The first thing to do in this situation is to wait until it’s cold out. Early morning is a great time. Wasps tend to congregate on their nest and are pretty inactive after the cool of the night. My general strategy then is to take a plastic bag and carefully encapsulate the whole nest, taking care to close off the opening after getting the whole thing. This strategy works, but is tense. There’s nothing in the world like holding a bag full of pissed off wasps. But when you’re at the picnic, you can’t wait until morning. You have to act. By far and away the number one rule when dealing with wasps is:
Be swift and decisive.
If you fuck around, you’ll get stung. Fun fact about wasps: They can sting you over and over again. Honey bees get one shot, and then the stinger pulls out of their butts and they die. Wasps are the pain that keeps on giving. So you must act swiftly without any indecision. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t panic.
One long-ago lake mesmerized summer evening, my illustrious cousin (yes, that cousin) and I self-appoint ourselves to be the ones who will take care of the wasp nest. It’s late afternoon. Everyone is sun-kissed and content. The smells of cooking burger waft tantalizingly over gathered family and friends. But there is this wasp nest.
We got this. Plastic bag – without holes – requisitioned. Okay, I say, okay. We creep up on the nest. The bag is splayed over my hands inside out, ready to do its encapsulating work. It’s definitely not the cool of the morning, and the wasps are definitely active. They are like the workers in the Lego Movie, just going about their wasp business like everything is awesome. They are unaware that things are about to become decidedly not awesome.
I imagine that there are rage hormones stored in some little gland right next to the little wasp brain just waiting to saturate the little bundle of neurons that controls wasp behavior. I picture a little graphic of that brain, like a Just Say No graphic of the human brain on cocaine, all soaked in rage. Angry Yellow Jackets are no joke.
But we’ve got this. Wait. Wait. Too many flying around. Hold still. Edge closer. Hold. Hold. A voice is asking if this is a good idea, if there are any other ways we could go about this. It might be my cousin. It might be my inner voice that cleaves toward reasonableness. No, I say with confidence. We must be swift and decisive. Swift and decisive. Hold. Edge closer. NOW! Lunge forward with swiftness and decisiveness and wrap the nest in plastic. Don’t let go. Don’t let it open. And RUN, RUN! Oh crap! Now panic!
Swiftly and decisively we dodge and escape the wasps not contained by the bag – the ones who immediately realized their hard work was being taken away and crushed by some giant. Rage hormones fully soak their little brains and no thought of size difference checks their sheer frothing anger. Nothing in nature has ever been this pissed off, and the remaining Yellow Jackets switch their butt-doom into high gear.
But we’ve been swift and decisive! We run and run. We realize we hadn’t discussed what to do after containing the threat. We decide to drown the wasps in the lake so we take the bag to the shoreline where we both drown and crush the nest. We are safe. The picnic is safe. I don’t have a memory, actually, of how the rest of the evening went, but I assume it must have been mostly uneventful, as I don’t carry the memory of further trauma. Okay, I admit that’s not a guarantee.
This memory isn’t even my most dramatic recollection of the power of swift and decisive action. Fast forward a few years and we’re out with the boat. That would be the old red boat, the one that lived at the lake and spent far more days on its trailer in the woods than in the water. That boat. I’m out with my illustrious cousin (yes, that one) and we have a boat full of children.
My cousin is at the helm and has whispered the magic incantation necessary to get the thing to start. Miraculously, we’re out on the water. After a little while, it becomes obvious that something isn’t right. We slow to a stop. WASPS!! Shout the children. There are wasps in the boat!
Holy crap. There are F’ING WASPS in the boat somewhere! They’re coming out of the frame of it somehow. It’s as if someone has yelled “BOMB” at an airport. Children dive for whatever passes for safety, wherever they think the Yellow Jackets are not. Of course, opinions differ, and so the squirmy life-jacketed bodies of children are everywhere and each of those bodies is screaming as though they’ve been captured by witches and are about to be eaten for dinner. Chaos rules for half a heartbeat, and then years of parenting instincts kick in and my cousin bolts for the dock.
Take the bomb away from the city. We drop the children on the dock and then he and I courageously speed out into the lake again. We agree that we must find the nest and dispose of it before our lives can continue as they have been up to this point. A careful search is made and eventually the probable location of the nest is determined to be behind a panel opposite the driver’s seat. We’ve been stopped on the open water for a few minutes now, and the wasps seem to be gathering their wits. A few minutes ago, they were happily going about their little wasp lives innocently enjoying what to them seemed like a great little home. Like in Empire when Han Solo realizes the cave they’re in is actually a monster, the wasps have realized their home is in the belly of some beast capable of moving at great speed over open water. Their reaction is decidedly not to politely negotiate a settlement to resolve our differences.
Confusion, in little wasp brains, is giving way to the trigger that will flood them with rage. Now. Being on a boat with a nest full of pissed-off wasps isn’t a great place to be, but we have one advantage. “Punch it,” I say. Again, a voice – either that of my cousin, or that of the little part of my brain usually responsible for self-preservation behavior – asks if this a good idea. We must be swift and decisive, I say. We must. You just can’t deal with wasps in any other way.
So now we’re traveling over the water at thirty miles an hour on a boat filled with wasps. It’s like some kind of twisted character in a Tower Defense video game. If you send out the Wasp-Filled Speedboat, that’ll save you. Bracing myself against the pitching of the boat, I remove the panel behind which the wasps live, and there it is, like some kind of demented jewel of the damned. Crawling with furious wasps, there is the nest.
The advantage we have is that the boat doesn’t have a cover. A Yellow Jacket pops off the nest and comes after me. But what this little drone doesn’t know is that it is only still on the boat because of physics. As soon as it breaks the plane of the windshield – fwiziinnnnnnng – the thirty mile an hour breeze grabs it and tosses it like a tiny rag doll to our rear and out of harm’s way.
My cousin, who is driving the boat, and who is hunkered behind the wind-shield, is vulnerable in a way I am not. He asks calmly if I could please hurry things along. There are a few wasps who are looking at him like maybe they’ve been wrong all along as to who the aggressor is here. I take a paddle – you always need a paddle in a boat – and slice the nest from where it is lodged. More wasps attack. Fwiip! Fwiing! Fwiip! They succumb to the speed of the water-craft. Then, in one swift, decisive movement, I grab the nest and toss it overboard. A few minutes of fanning the boat with a towel to dislodge any remaining raging wasps and we’re back at the dock. Thanks to swift and decisive action, the bomb, we say, has been diffused. The city is saved. Even more miraculously, the heroes are returned, triumphant and unscathed. We, as they say, have lived to fight another day.
I am thankful to the wasps, in a way. The capacity to act swiftly and decisively does come in handy sometimes. Most decisions come with at least a little time to cogitate over what best practices might be, but some don’t. Sometimes you have to grab the nest with the bag and just run.