Two for the Team

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

August 28, 2011

I was testing out some new photo gear the other day, and I needed a reliable spot to shoot macro of moving subjects. For reliability, nothing beats the comings and goings of a Yellowjackets’ nest. I find a nest almost every year somewhere in the yard—usually the Yellowjackets bring it to my attention, forcefully.

Last October, I photographed a Yellowjacket’s nest, and some Yellowjackets feeding on fallen crabapples. I identified them as Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons). I assumed I had the same species this year.

Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons)

Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons); the black "anchor" on the first stripe of the abdomen is diagnostic.

Yellowjackets are the “yellow wasps” that Jean de Crèvecœur described in 1782 in his famous Letters from an American Farmer:

The yellow wasps, which build under ground, in our meadows, are much more to be dreaded, for when the mower unwittingly passes his scythe over their holes they immediately sally forth with a fury and velocity superior even to the strength of man. They make the boldest fly, and the only remedy is to lie down and cover our heads with hay, for it is only at the head they aim their blows; nor is there any possibility of finishing that part of the work until, by means of fire and brimstone, they are all silenced. But though I have been obliged to execute this dreadful sentence in my own defence, I have often thought it a great pity, for the sake of a little hay, to lay waste so ingenious a subterranean town, furnished with every conveniency, and built with a most surprising mechanism.”[1]

When I downloaded my photos for review, I discovered that this year’s yellowjackets did not look like last year’s yellowjackets. Hmmm.  After an hour or so trolling around the internet, I was down to two possibilities: either this was some odd form of the Eastern Yellowjacket, or it was a Downy Yellowjacket (Vespula flavopilosa).

Downy Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons)

Downy Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons); the two yellow apostrophes on the back help ID this species.

Unfortunately, my shots did not show all the details that I needed. I needed to get closer, and I needed to use a bigger flash.

You know where this is going, right?

They were fairly tolerant of my close approach, but they really disliked the flash. It disoriented them; they actually fell out of the sky, and when they got up, they were unhappy.

Yellowjackets at the nest

The guy doing the faceplant was blinded by the flash from a photo a second earlier.

They do not like the bigger flash
It makes them blind, it makes them crash
They fall straight down, their faces smash
It makes them mad, it makes them rash
Now see the photo fellow dash
He should not use the bigger flash[2]

When distressed, yellowjackets release a pheromone that basically turns them into crazed stinging machines. Yep, I took one for the team. Actually, I took two, both in the sensitive skin on the back of my arm. No, Monsieur Crèvecoeur, they don’t limit their blows to the head.

But I got the shots; I sent them off to someone I consider expert, and he confirmed that they were, in fact, Downy Yellowjackets, a species that was only identified about thirty years ago. Up until then, it was considered either a more yellow form of the Common Yellowjacket (Vespula alascensis) or a hybrid. [3]

The Downy Yellowjacket is also a social parasite; the Downy queen will actually hijack an Eastern Yellowjacket or Common Yellowjacket nest.  One way to tell them apart, apparently, is to dig up the nest. Eastern and Common Yellowjacket nest material will be gray. In the Downy Yellowjacket, the material will be brown. I suggest that you wait until after a good hard frost before checking this out. NOTE: After posting this, I recieved the following correction from a fellow that I consider an expert on Yellowjackets.

“The nest carton of bothmaculifrons and alascensis is also brownish, but even more brittle and fragile than flavopilosa, and the cells average smaller in those species.  All of them use rotting wood for raw materials, so their paper is of poor quality, and breaks apart in the hand.  The exotic Vespula germanica and the western V. pensylvanica have sturdier gray carton, as do the members of the V. rufaspecies group, and also V. squamosa.” [material added 9/9/2011]

While doing a little reading on Yellowjackets, I discovered that there is a business in producing Yellowjacket venom for helping folks with severe allergies to the sting. That brought a ridiculous image to my mind’s eye of lab drones milking yellowjackets. Who does that job? Of course, I knew there had to be an easier way, and then I found the answer:

“Live vespids are collected from feral colonies and frozen while still alive. Following collection, the frozen insects are allowed to thaw just long enough to permit removal of their venom sacs. Dissection of venom sacs is a tedious, manual process.”[4]

So they don’t, exactly, milk the yellowjackets, but who does that job?

Downy Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons)

Such serious bugs

[1] J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, reprinted from the original ed., with a prefatory note by W. P. Trent and an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn. New York, Fox, Duffield, 1904. Letter II, 45. (Accessed 27 Aug., 2011 on line at

[2] Flattery in the form of a poor imitation of the inimitable Dr. Seuss. Theodor Seuss Geisel was the greatest poet of the 20th century, a period characterized by a lot of poetic twaddle. At least when Dr. Seuss wrote nonsense, he knew it.

[3] There are several other species of Yellowjackets, one is known to science as Vespula pensylvanica—but they don’t live in Pennsylvania.

[4] Miles Gurainick. “Venom Source Material,” Fight the Cause Newsletter (ALK-Abelló, Inc. Round Rock TX, Spring 2009), [accessed 27 Aug. 2011]).

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