Fall is in the Air … and the Bugs Know It!

by the Urban Ecology Center

The cooler air at night, slow changing color of the leaves, and the shortening day length, all are subtle cues that winter is coming. If you are really observant, you may notice that some of the animals around us have also noticed the approaching winter. One group of animals that definitely makes their presence known are the wasps, hornets and yellowjackets. Many people confuse these different insects since they look a lot alike. All three tend to be social and several species (the vespids) are known for making paper nests of various shapes and sizes. The terms “hornet” and “yellowjacket” are common names that apply loosely to a number of the vespids that build these paper nests and have abdomens with yellow and black markings. Another rule of thumb is that hornets build nests above ground and yellowjackets underground. All three are in the order Hymenoptera, which includes bees, wasps and ants. Basically, wasps can be differentiated by how they hold their wings at rest (should you get that close to them). They tend to hold their wings out to the sides while hornets and yellowjackets hold their wings over the back. The reason that we see more wasps and hornets in the late fall is that the colonies of these insects are changing. By late summer, the size of the colony reaches its peak and the queen ceases laying eggs. The female workers no longer have young to feed and begin spending less time at the hive. As a result, these workers begin to look for food such as fallen, over-ripe fruit and other sweet liquids including your soda. No one really knows why this change occurs. The end result is that, depending on the summer, there could be a lot of hornets and yellowjackets around. As most people are aware, these insects have a very painful sting and can sting repeatedly. When one of these insects is flying around you, it is recommended that you gently “shoo” it away. Do not swat at it or run away. If you are drinking a sweet drink, make sure that it is covered so that you do not take a drink with one of these insects in the can. It is also a good idea to stay away from garbage cans that tend to attract them. If you are interested in learning more about these fascinating insects, check out the book and websites listed at right. Hopefully, you now have a greater appreciation for these wonderful creatures, and can be more understanding when they want a sip of your Coke at a fall picnic. Learn More! Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Observing Insect Lives Donald Stokes Ohio State Extension: Young Entomological Society Resource/Information Website: Young Entomological Society Website: Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 8 – September 2002