Outdoors Columns: Steve Lekwa writes of battle with bees invading apple trees

Steve Lekwa, Naturally Speaking
Special to the Ames Tribune
Bees sit on a piece of honey comb as their hive is removed from an old piece of farming equipment on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.

Cedar waxwings stop by every spring to eat the petals from our apple tree’s beautiful white flowers. House finches feed on the apples once they start turning red and sweet, too, leaving many of the nicest apples pecked full of holes.

Our late-summer apples don’t keep like fall apples and get soft in only a few days once they’re ripe and falling from the tree. They make absolutely wonderful applesauce when I get to them before birds or bugs ruin them. Store-bought applesauce is almost tasteless by comparison. I could have made a lot of applesauce from this year’s bumper crop, but there’s still quite a bit in our freezer from the last couple of years. Buckets of excess apples have been served to a friend’s cows as tasty treats, and others have gone into my compost pile.

Yellowjackets, small black and yellow colonial wasps, are some of the last things to feast on my apples. The softer and mushier the fallen apples are, the better they like them. The yard ends up swarming with them if I don’t keep the apples picked up.

I had just turned over the compost pile to reduce the number of exposed apples and was closing the garden gate when an angry yellow jacket stung my hand. They usually don’t sting when foraging for food unless people swat at them. I wasn’t swatting. They can attack in mass if they think you’re threatening their underground nest, though. It didn’t take long to find the nest hole just a couple feet from the garden gate. It’s harvest season in the garden, so that gate gets opened and closed pretty often. The yellow jacket nest had to go.

New queen wasps are produced in late summer and are the only wasps from the colony that survive the winter. My colony began last spring when an overwintered queen dug a hole and built a small paper nest made with wood fiber and her saliva in it. She captured little caterpillars and grubs and placed them in the newly made nest cells. She laid an egg in each cell. The wasp larvae fed on the high-protein food the queen had provided and soon emerged as worker wasps.

The workers, like all colonial ants, bees and wasps, are females that don’t breed. They help their mother, the queen, by enlarging the nest hole and building more paper nest cells. They take over hunting for more caterpillars and grubs to stock the cells. The queen keeps laying eggs all summer as the nest grows. A single colony can hold several thousand yellow jackets by September. The unnoticed colony had been a helpful ally in keeping my garden free of other insect pests all summer.

A change came over the yellow jacket colony in late August. They developed a taste for sugary foods like hummingbird nectar in a feeder, an open sweet drink, sweet treats at a picnic, open trash cans and all my excess apples. People sometimes get stung on their hands and mouth when they fail to notice yellow jackets that have joined their outdoor meal as uninvited guests.

With the summer’s reproductive season coming to an end, the colony’s need for protein food was diminishing. It’s almost as if they know their own end is near and they decide to eat, drink and be merry with lots of sugar before they die.

Yellowjackets are active in daylight and return to the nest after sundown. I waited until dusk to approach the nest with a can of long-range wasp spray. Attacking yellow jackets release a pheromone that calls their nestmates to join in defending the nest, so I beat a hasty retreat when a late flier stung me on the other hand.

I didn’t relish the idea of battling hundreds of angry yellow jackets I could barely see. An ice cube helped ease the pain and swelling of the sting while I waited for them to settle down again. I cautiously approached the nest with a flashlight a couple of hours later when it was fully dark. The spray did its deadly work and only a few survivors hovered around the nest hole by morning.

It’s safe to go to the garden again, but hundreds of yellow jackets from other nests in the area still fly to our yard looking for fallen apples. The last apples will soon be gone, and a new batch of young queen yellow jackets will be looking for safe places to spend the winter, so they can start the cycle all over again next spring.