Look Before You Drink!

Yellowjacket on a soda can (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 September 2011

Watch out!  At the end of summer you might find a yellowjacket in your soda can!

All summer long we’ve been able to eat outdoors without being plagued by yellowjacket wasps, but now it’s downright dangerous to put the can to your lips unless you’ve guarded it from these invaders.

Why do they do this?

Yellowjackets are members of the Vespidae family (wasps) who build papery nests underground.  Last spring a single fertilized female, the queen, came out of the crevice she hid in all winter.  She built a few papery cells underground, laid some eggs, tended the nest and fed the larvae.  Within 30 days her eggs became sterile female workers. The colony was born. 

From that point forward the queen merely laid “worker” eggs and her growing population of sterile females did all the work.  They tended the nest and collected insect prey (meat) to feed the larvae.  They weren’t interested in sweets.

But in late summer a change occurs.  Instead of sterile worker eggs, the queen lays eggs containing males and fertile females. When they hatch and mature they leave the colony to mate.  As soon as that’s done, the queen stops laying eggs and colony social life breaks down.  The workers stop tending the remaining larvae and leave the nest to go roaming, looking for sweets — fallen apples and your can of sweet soda.

Yellowjackets are somewhat aggressive but don’t worry they’ll disappear soon. By late fall they will all die and the newly fertilized queens will retreat to their crevices to wait out the winter and restart the cycle next spring.

Coincidentally, we stop eating outdoors by that point so we don’t notice the yellowjackets are gone.


p.s.  Do you have a yellow jacket story?  Leave a comment to share it with us.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons in the public domain.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

7 thoughts on “Look Before You Drink!

  1. In the summer before my freshman year of high school, a few of my friends put together a picnic to celebrate the summer one last time. Of course there were cans of pop. I clearly remember thinking that I had seen little buzzing insects around the cans when we ran back to the pavilion. I took a sip from my Mountain Dew and found, within seconds, that the drink had much more punch than I remembered. That’s because the buzzer stung my lip from inside my mouth…

    It hurt a lot, but it hurt worse when I went to band camp the following Monday and attempted to play my trombone.

    Now, any time I have a can of anything outdoors, I am vigilant. (I also watch my friends’ cans just to be sure no one has a buzzer in their mouth like I did. Oww!)

  2. One summer during the mid 90’s I was at my aunt and uncles house for a cookout and doing some swimming. At one point I was standing on their deck drinking a can of caffeine free pepsi. I took a sip then felt an insect on the outside of my lower lip and when I went to brush it away it stung my lip. I never actually saw it and it forunately didn’t leave the stinger behind. That was the first of only 2 times I’ve ever been stung.

  3. I never drank a yellow jacket but I came mighty close. Fortunately I heard it buzzing in the can and paused to check!

  4. Wait, so the deal is that the yellow-jackets change their diet because they’re freed from their thralldom? Somehow I never would have guessed that.

  5. Being the semi-paranoid that I am, I do 2 things to keep them out of my cans of pop. I will turn the tab around in order to block part of the hole. And after the level of liquid drops I’ll blow into the can before I take a drink. I can only say that this anecdotally works as I’ve never been stung.

  6. Actually, Josh, I think they change their diet because they “know” they’re going to die. It’s the end of their life and they probably figure all that sugar won’t kill them. 😉

  7. As a kid I always remember yellow-jackets buzzing around everyone’s hot drinks come fall soccer season. I reasoned that they were attracted to the heat. Maybe they were attracted to any sweetener added or within which would have been tremendous in a hot cocoa, for instance.

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