Yellowjackets: The Colony Is Dying

Another frequent visitor to Eliza Howell Park pointed out a Yellowjacket nesting location several weeks ago. Since then, I have been visiting the spot regularly, observing the comings and goings from a safe distance. The nest was built underground, in a previously existing hole.

My intent has been to wait till the Yellowjackets become less active as the colony nears its end and then try to get closer looks.

That time is now, as October turns to November. The workers have recently been emerging from the hole much more slowly.

Though they look a lot like bees, Yellowjackets are wasps, social wasps similar to Bald-faced Hornets (which I also watch in the park and have written about), living in colonies with a queen and usually hundreds of workers.

The only members of the colony to survive the winter are (some of) the new fertilized queens, who seek sheltered places, away from the old nest, to hibernate. The nest will deteriorate in the winter and not be used again.

The rest of the colony dies when the frosts come in the Fall. I recently found two individuals resting on different leaves of a tulip tree.

They weren’t moving, clearly at the end of their lives. When I touched the leaves, each fell to the ground.

As I was watching at the entrance to the nest, one incoming wasp stopped a few feet short, grasped onto a horizontal stem, and turned upside down. Not usual behavior.

Some of the Yellowjackets that now remain crawl out of the nest and but don’t go anywhere. I am watching the end of the colony.

Yellowjackets are often disliked because of the way they aggressively protect their nests, but there is something amazing and impressive about their colonies. And it can be touching to watch the workers die at the end of their task.

But… A queen that survives the winter will start a new nest in the spring and the workers that she produces will enlarge the nest and care for other young. The Yellowjackets will be back.

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