Ms Buzz

Aerial yellowjacket nest.

Western Yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica) queen preparing to overwinter

Pulled pork for the colony

Kelly’s Field Notes

Common Name: Yellowjacket

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Vespidae

Genus: Vespula

Species of Note (When someone says “yellowjacket” what you probably think of in your area):

  • Eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons)

  • Western yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica)

  • Prairie yellowjacket (Vespula atropilosa)

  • German yellowjacket (Vespula germanica)


Yellowjackets are social wasps found mostly in North America, though there are a few European species. They have black and yellow striping on their abdomens, are a little smaller than honey bees, and have smooth bodies. Species can be identified by their abdomen markings though they may look pretty similar to the untrained eye. Workers are about 12 mm (0.47 in) long, while queens are about 19 mm (0.75 in) long. Depending on the species males are the same size as workers or closer in size to queens.

Life Cycle:

After putting together a small nest made from fiber within a cavity, often in the ground, and gathering food, the fertilized queen lays eggs in the Spring, after diapausing (hibernating) over winter. The nests are only a few centimeters beneath the ground, a little deeper if on a slope. Some yellowjackets nest in tree hollows and old rodent nests. They also use our porches, attics, sheds, and overhangs. On average, nests contain 1,200 cells. Queens of some species can lay up to 25,000 eggs in one season. Colonies will have about 5,000 workers at their height.

Eggs take about 30 days to hatch. Their larvae take about 20 days to pupate, then after only a few days become adults. Once she has about 6 - 7 or 4 - 9 workers (depending on species) her focus shifts to egg laying and the workers take over nest construction and food gathering. Workers can live 20-40 days, depending on which season they were born (shorter during Summer months, longer during Autumn until everyone but the queen dies in Winter). Queens live about one year.

During late Summer, only males and queens are born as the rest of the colony begins to die out. The males and queens fly off to mate, afterwards the males will die and the fertilized queens will start the cycle again, diapausing for the cold Winter months. Generally, nests are not used again. Most colonies contain one queen, but there have been colonies containing more than one queen. They tend to be larger and contain more workers.

In warmer climates nests continue to grow throughout Winter if prolonged freezing is not an issue. These perennial nests can reach over 100,000 workers.


Yellowjackets, unlike bees, cannot share the location of food resources. They also stay pretty close to the nest, remaining on average within 1,100 feet of the nest.Workers bring back a variety of protein to feed the larvae in the nest. Often they will kill other insects and remove limbs and wings to create a neater package to masticate then bring back to the larvae. Larger insects have their heads removed. The Eastern and Western yellowjacket will also scavenge dead insects and other dead animals.

Workers eat nectar, fruit, and other things high in sugar and carbohydrates. Because of this they are pollinators. They also like honeydew, but sometimes the sugar they find is fermented and the wasp gets so inebriated it cannot fly or walk. Yellowjackets will often raid honeybee hives for honey. If coming in one at a time they do not always receive resistance, but if they come in a stream the honeybees will attack them.

Workers have a dominance hierarchy. Older workers are aggressive and maul younger workers. This mostly happens when a forager is returning to the nest and mauled by a worker within the nest.

Super Powers:

  • Smooth Stinger - Yellowjackets have smooth stingers which do not get stuck in skin, so they can and do stink multiple times. They do not usually sting away from the nest. Rated 2 on the Schmidt Pain Index and described as "hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue."

  • Team Work - A particularly huge nest was found in Charleston County, South Carolina in August, 1991. It contained an estimated 250,000 workers.

  • Aggression - Workers will often maul each other in a display of dominance. Older workers maul younger workers, while the younger worker remains still. Workers can get so competitive they attack each other's prey, which can lead to both workers failing at bringing that prey home.

  • Like Batman, They Have Butlers - two species of muscid flies lay their eggs on top of the nest envelope of yellowjacket nests. When the eggs hatch the larvae fall into the soil below the nest entrance, where the larvae feed on detritus and waste that builds up under the wasp nest.

  • Sound the Alarm! - if you crush a yellowjacket it releases a pheromone that tells other yellowjackets to come and attack. The alarm pheromones are located in the head and venom.

Yellowjackets in Culture:

  • Georgia Tech’s mascot Buzz is a yellowjacket, among several other colleges, high schools, and sports teams.

  • There is a city in Colorado named Yellowjacket.

  • The indigenous Shasta people have a myth about yellowjackets stealing salmon from Coyote.

  • Seeing more yellowjackets and hornets during the Summer was considered a sign of a harsh winter to come in Washington in the 1970’s. Likely it’s an even older tale than that.

  • Several tree species are called yellow jackets

Book Recommendations:

  • Endless Forms: The Secret World Of Wasps By Seirian Sumner

  • Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect by Eric R. Eaton


Akre, Roger D., et al. "Foraging distances of Vespula pensylvanica workers (Hymenoptera: Vespidae)." Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society (1975): 12-16.

Akre, Roger D., and Hal C. Reed. "A polygynous colony of Vespula pensylvanica (Saussure)(Hymenoptera: Vespidae)." Entomol. News 92.1 (1981): 27-31.

Edwards, Robin. "The Behaviour of Workers outside the Nest." in Social Wasps: Their Biology and Control. East Grinstead: Rentokil, 1980. 120-45.

MacDonald, J. F., Roger D. Akre, and William B. Hill. "Comparative biology and behavior of Vespula atropilosa and Vespula pennsylvanica (Hymenoptera: Vespidae)." Melanderia (1974).

MacDonald, J. F., R. D. Akre, and W. B. Hill. "Locations and structure of nests of Vespula atropilosa and V. acadica (Hymenoptera: Vespidae)." Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society (1975): 114-121.

MacDonald, J. F., and R. W. Matthews. "Nesting biology of the eastern yellowjacket, Vespula maculifrons (Hymenoptera: Vespidae)." Journal of the Kansas entomological society (1981): 433-457.

Reed, Hal C., and Peter J. Landolt. "Application of alarm pheromone to targets by southern yellowjackets (Hymenoptera: Vespidae)." Florida Entomologist (2000): 193-193.

“Why Mt. Shasta Erupted - a Shasta Legend.”,

‌Wilson, E. E., and D. A. Holway. "Multiple mechanisms underlie displacement of solitary Hawaiian Hymenoptera by an invasive social wasp." Ecology 91.11 (2010): 3294-3302.

“Yellow Jackets | College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences | Clemson University, South Carolina.”,