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A home on the Island: Please don’t call them bees

Past Labor Day, starting to ease into the direction of fall, we notice little indicators: those brisker morning walks and necessary sweatshirts in the evening.

The earlier and more vibrant sunsets, the presence of jellyfish, shorter lines at the IGA, and unfortunately, the increase of yellow jackets.

Late August into early September marks the transition into my son’s “anxiety season.” Luckily he’s not allergic to yellow jacket stings, but the fear he expresses is real, as for some reason, they love to sting him. He’s been the unlucky recipient in several incidents.

Once we were sitting on the back porch enjoying a family game of cards and he was stung in the face. This summer, we were leaving an artist’s residence during the ARTSI studio tour and he was stung on his foot.

It’s about this time of year when outside activities become much less enjoyable solely as a result of the yellow-and-black nuisance factor.

Most people call them bees, but in fact they are a type of wasp, and colloquially give true bees a bad rap. Although their yellow and black stripes are similar to those of bees, yellow jackets (wasps) differ from bees in a number of ways.

Their bodies are smoother and more narrow, and are equipped with lance-like stingers with small barbs, capable of delivering multiple stings before dying. Yellow jackets are also predatory and will consume other insects.

They are scavengers of human food and will often be found surrounding trash cans and picnic sites. They are more aggressive and may sting at even the slightest provocation.

I have noticed that folks around the Island tend to feel there’s an increased activity this year as well. Visit any outside restaurant, or even the beach for a lovely Indian Summer afternoon, and their presence will be clearly known.

But to be clear, this is not just a Shelter Island issue, nor is this an East End, or even New York problem. Research has cited that no matter where you live, from the tundra of Alaska to the humid South, you might be seeing many more yellow jackets than in year’s past.

This is a result of winters not being cold or long enough in some places to control the insects’ populations as in the past.

In the spring, a new yellow jacket queen starts a nest. They build their papery nests in cavities — from underground holes, gaps in a tree, or within the eaves of your home. The first generation of yellow jackets, all female, grow up and become workers sourcing food to feed the young larvae in the hive.

This food is digested by the larvae, who then secrete sugars that in turn feed the workers.

Through the summer, queens continue laying eggs and by late summer and fall, they begin laying eggs that will become males and future queens (or ‘foundresses’), which fly off to mate.

Their aggression level increases as the queen stops laying eggs, and there is no longer any sugar source being created by larvae in the nest.

Starvation makes the males and workers hungry and aggressive as they work harder to seek food and survive. Their days are limited and they are hangry.

I chatted recently with PJ Lechmanski of East End Pest Control, located here on Shelter Island. He can be found removing anywhere from three to 10 nests per day during the height of yellow jacket season, and also noted that the calls started coming in a bit earlier this year.

A milder winter, and a very warm spring (remember those above average temperatures back on Memorial Day weekend) led to increased activity and longer time for nests to grow larger.

The change in weather pattern allows the queens to get started building nests earlier, breed more, and increase the number of ‘workers’ that stay out later into the warm fall days. More workers mean bigger nests…

There are several things that residents can do to mitigate the presence of yellow jackets:

• Scan yards for any holes in the ground dug by rodents or pests. Unlike other flying insects, the yellow jackets will sometimes nest underground, so fill in the burrows with soil and pack them firmly to ensure that they are sealed off. 

• Keep garbage cans sealed and stored away from the exterior of your property.

• Make sure that they cannot build nests in your wall voids, attic, shed or vents by sealing off all entry points (cracks, crevices or holes) to these locations.

• Avoid wearing scented shampoo, lotion or perfume when you will be outdoors for an extended period of time.

• Don’t wear bright, colorful or flower-printed clothing to avoid being confused with a flower.

• Most importantly, never remove a nest on your own. This can be dangerous for you and potentially harmful for the environment, if, for example, the nest actually belongs to a colony of honey bees.

Rest assured that although certainly a bother, most encounters with yellow jackets are not dangerous. In fact, in 2020, the

logged just 74 deaths from contact with “hornets, wasps and bees.” (In that same time period, 539 people died from falling off ladders.) And allergic reactions to insect stings will affect just 5% of the population during their lifetime.

Call them an inconvenience or annoyance, an irritation or a pest. But they are not pollinators or a critical component to the health of our global food supply and biodiversity.

Call an exterminator — but please don’t call them bees.