Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons)

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Yellowjackets are the common name given to the predatory wasps in North America. The Eastern Yellowjacket is black and yellow and is about the size of its look-a-like, the honey bee. All females are capable of stinging, and they have grown a reputation for painful and relentless attacks. Yellowjackets typically live in nests, which become colonies for their intricate society. Their society is comprised of a queen and workers, who's ultimate goal is to further the nest throughout spring into late fall, and to keep the society to which they belong, alive and well.



Laid by the queen, the eggs are a milky white color and are usually oval-shaped. They are about 1 to 2 mm in length.


The larvae are a creamy white color and range from slightly larger than the an egg at hatching, to near adult size at maturity. They are fed by their maternal queen for 18-20 days.


The pupa resembles an adult and is the same length. These pupae will become mostly workers, and assume the tasks of nest expansion, taking care of the queen, finding food, and defense of the colony.


Yellowjackets are commonly mistaken for bees, when in fact they are wasps. A typical yellowjacket is about half an inch long, while queens can grow up to 3/4 of an inch. The typical yellowjackets, the workers, are commonly mistaken for honey bees. However, yellowjackets, unlike bees, can sting multiple times with their barb-like stingers. Many animals mimic the color of the yellowjacket for protection, leading to much confusion during identification. Yellowjackets look very similar to hornets, yet they have much bigger heads.

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Yellowjackets tend to build their nests concealed. This means that their nests are either underground or high up, which has many positives for them. Some of the positives include the fact that they can build without the threat of others tearing down their nest, and that they are concealed from view of other competing animals. Nests may even reach the size of a basketball by the seasons end. Yellowjacket colonies last only one season as they do not overwinter, yet one species introduced from Europe will sometimes overwinter in areas with mild winters. Most nests rarely make it through the winter, yet the ones that do, grow to an enormous size, which can hold multiple queens that only further the nests growth. Yellowjackets construct their nests from materials gathered from decayed wood or even living plants. A yellowjacket nest consists of a number of circular combs attached one below another. The combs are usually covered with a layered envelope allowing only one opening. Sometimes a guard will usually be posted at the entrance of a nest to warn of possible danger. Nest size varies from 300 to 120,000 cells, although the vast majority of nests average 2,000 to 6,000 cells, and they are 3-6 inches in diameter.

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Aggressive Behavior

The Eastern Yellowjack can be quite the vicous species, as it's attacks are well known and feared. However, even though yellowjackets are defensive, they will rarely ever attack unprovoked. Yellowjackets, unlike bees, do not die after a sting, rather they will continue to attack again and again. In Colorado, the yellowjacket is estimated to cause at least 90 percent of the "bee stings" in the state. Worse yet, the fact that their nests are underground means that they can emerge from seemingly nowhere, and if threatened, will attack relentlessly. Here's a video describing one attack, and a second detailing how to treat a sting:

Geographic Range

Yellowjackets can be found all over the world, anywhere from South Africa, North America, to Australia, and there are over 16 species here in the U.S. This can be attributed to the yellowjacket's ability to be able to adapt to almost any climate, yet they prosper in a more temperate one.

In the United States

The Eastern Yellowjacket was the leading, dominant species in the Eastern United States, that is, until the German Yellowjacket in 1975 started to out compete the natives. The German Yellowjacket is bold and aggressive, and when provoked, it can sting repeatedly which is quite painful. It will even pursue the aggressors if provoked enough. Yellowjackets are particularly abundant in the southeastern United States. The map below shows the area where the German has been out competing the native species in the east:
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Mating Behavior

The mating behavior of the yellowjacket is quite the interesting one. So interesting in fact that Michael Goodisman, one of the leading opinions on yellowjacket, said “Social insects such as yellow jackets have been described as one of the greatest achievements of evolution because of the incredible cooperative nature of their societies.” Mating between wasps takes place with a fertile queen and male wasp, and the queen can be fertilized with the sperm of several males instead of just one. Mating with multiple partners can lead to disease along with wasted time and energy, yet queens who have been fertilized by multiple wasps have larger colonies, so the risk is worth it. Wasps unlike bees, chose stationary mating over in flight. When the queen and the male are finished, the male wasps' sperm cells are kept inside the queen. Those sperm cells are not used for a while until the spring comes and they are needed. In the spring, the queen will use the sperm cells to make eggs for the new nest that year. This process is repeated again and again, until the nest is quite large in size and multiple queens have moved in and are reproducing. This will continue until the end of fall, when the queens will go off to hibernate during winter, ready to begin the process over again come the following spring.


Life Cycle

The life cycle for male yellow jackets differs much from that of its female counterpart. Once the eggs hatch, the queen feeds the young larvae for about 20 days. After that, the workers in the colony will take over caring for the larvae, feeding them with chewed up meat or fruit. After these eggs grow up, they will leave the parent colony to mate. Males are harmless and can't sting, yet females can and will sting if angered. After mating, males quickly die, while fertilized queens seek protected places to wait out the winter. Parent colony workers die off, usually leaving the nest to die, as does the founding queen. These new queens start new nests in protected places, such as logs, in stumps, under bark, underground, and man-made structures. Queens emerge during the warmer days of late spring or early summer to begin the process over again.

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Feeding Habit

Yellowjacket tend to eat a variety of things. Depending on where they are in their life cycle and where they live are two key factors as to what yellowjackets will eat. In the spring, when the cycle is just begun, adults will feed mostly on items high in sugars and carbs like fruits, flower nectar, and tree sap, while the larvae feed on proteins insects, meats, etc. Adult workers chew the meat which is to be fed to the larvae, and in return the larvae secrete a sugar material that the adults enjoy. This process is know as trophallaxis. Seen below are two ants showing trophallaxis:

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In late summer, foraging workers tend to slowly change their food preference from meats to fruits, sodas, sweets, etc., since the larvae in the nest can't meet requirements as a source of sugar anymore because the nest has expanded. This is the reason yellowjackets may swarm you at a picnic. Below is a video showing the ability the yellowjacket has at eating it's prey:

Ecological Role

Yellowjackets are most known for their role as an important predator of pest insect, and they can also be pollinators, yet not as greatly as their look-a-likes, bees. Both bees and yellowjackets are important to the environment yet, yellowjackets pollinate only a fraction compared to bees. However, both these insects are easily triggered to sting, and will do so repeatedly until the threat has been defeated or retreats. Yellowjacket are constructed so that they can sting multiple times without doing harm to themselves, which is a major difference between honey bees and yellowjackets. On a positive note, yellowjackets along with Bald Faced Hornets are known meat eaters, and they will eat up aphids leaving your plants looking beautifully. They would rather go about their business than chase you around the garden. Just stay away from their nests and don’t swat at them, and they should leave you alone.

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In Today's Culture

The yellowjacket has become more than just a wasp in today's culture, as it has become a mascot in some top colleges and high schools, along with a character in Marvel Comics.


The yellowjacket, because of it's relentless attack and drive, has become a simple choice for many school's mascots most notably in collage and high school sports. One of the most notable schools which takes the yellowjacket as its mascot, is the Georgia Institute of Technology. Some notable sports alumni from Georgia Tech are Detroit Lions' wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Dallas Cowboy's Tashard Choice, and former Red Sox's Nomar Garciaparra.

In Marvel Comics

Yellowjacket is a comic book character in Stan Lee's "Marvel Comics". First seen in 1962, Yellowjacket has grown to become one of the more popular superheros in comic books.

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Learn More

You can learn interesting facts about yellowjackets here: http://farmerfredrant.blogspot.com/2009/09/yellowjacket-fun-facts.html

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