Warren McAlpine knew exactly what to do when he bumped a yellow jacket nest with his lawn mower a few weeks ago at his home in Lathrup Village.

“I ran,” the local attorney recalled. “I knew what was about to happen. When you disturb them, they don’t just go somewhere else. They go to the source… They were using me like a pincushion.”

McAlpine, who isn’t allergic to wasp venom, emerged with a couple of painful stings and a story that is as much a feature of late summer in Detroit as cookouts and back-to-school outfits.

Mess with a yellow jacket, and it will mess back. Detroiters know this, and those who don’t are likely in for a reminder. Yellow jackets are wasps, and their nests reach peak populations at this time of year. That means more wasps are out looking for sugar just as we crack open a can of soda and head out to enjoy our dwindling supply of summer afternoons.

Before you swat them or mess with a nest, take a deep breath and remember that they will definitely clap back — and that they will be dead by the end of fall. 

“Yellow jackets tend to be … intolerant, aggressive jerks this time of year, with very potent venom,” said Howard Russell, a retired insect diagnostician at Michigan State University.

Rather than confront the wasps, he says, “Retreat. Quickly.”

Detroiters share their pain

Humans tend to have the most trouble with yellow jackets in late summer, when their nests are largest. 

Jamon Jordan, the official historian of the City of Detroit and an avid home gardener, touched a seasonal nerve last week with a social media post about yellow jackets

His post, part battle cry and part identification guide, reminded Detroiters that a single yellow jacket can sting multiple times, and will do so aggressively if they are attacked or if their nest is threatened, even biting you to hold on. (They are carnivorous.) Bees, on the other hand, can only sting once before they die, thanks to barbed stingers that get stuck inside their target.

On a good day, Jordan said his posts about local history might be shared 50 times. This one already has more than 24,000 shares.

Jordan appreciates the wasps for killing aphids and other garden pests, but he struck a chord with people more concerned about being stung.

“I kept hearing people say how the bees were so bad this year, and they’re not bees, so I wanted to clarify,” he said. “I am amazed at the response, and at the same time, I kind of understand it … I know the pain.”

Detroiters know it too, judging by the hundreds of comments on his post sharing painful experiences and management strategies:

“I was stung twice this season and I have never been stung before. Them thangs hurt …” “I almost rear ended someone because one jumped in my car while I was driving” … “Got stung two weeks ago in my knee … It was painful for days.” … “I deal with them at work all the time. I just continue to be normal and show no fear and talk to them… I haven’t got stung yet.”

Commenters on Jamon Jordan’s post about yellow jackets

Some commenters were struck by Jordan’s claim that yellow jackets can remember human faces, but research on certain wasps’ facial recognition skills is focused on different wasp species and is still being debated.

Floats like butterfly, stings like a wasp

Yellow jackets are social wasps that live in seasonal colonies. Fall cold snaps kill off the nests every year except for the queens, which hibernate through the winter. In the spring, queens begin building new nests and hatch a new round of workers, females who set about expanding the nest and collecting food for their baby sisters, who will carry on the task of growing the colony throughout the summer.

Wasps tend to return to their nests in the evening, so after nightfall is the best time to avoid the insects.

As the queen produces more workers, nests grow throughout the spring and summer and reach peak size in early fall, when a large hive may hold 5,000 members at once. The vast majority of them — and of all the yellow jackets you will ever see — are female workers.

As fall begins, the queen gives birth to a generation of stingless males and new queens, which emerge from the nest to mate. Once fertilized, the new queens seek shelter elsewhere. Cold weather arrives, the rest of the hive dies out, and the cycle begins again.

Lifecycle of a yellow jacket 
Winter: Queens hibernate in a protected area such as a hollow log or dead tree.
Spring and summer: Queens emerge in the warm days of April and May. They find a new place to begin building a nest and lay eggs. The first children are workers: daughters who take over food collection, nest construction, and caring for larvae while the queen focuses on laying eggs.
Late summer: Nests reach their largest populations. The queen lays one more generation of eggs — including stingless males and new queens — which leave the nest to mate.
Late fall: With the exception of the new queens, which seek shelter outside the nest after mating, yellow jackets die off as temperatures drop.
Image credit: Outlier Media

The worker’s stings are painful, but generally are not a health threat. Things get dangerous fast, though, if the stung person has an allergy.

In that case, they can quickly become lethal. Allergies make bees and wasps some of the most deadly animals in the U.S.

For the non-allergic, Justin Schmidt, a biologist who ranked insects’ stinging power based on his own experience of getting stung, gave the yellow jacket “a solid two” out of four.

That may seem low to its victims. “It’s definitely painful, and they definitely hit you more than once,” Jordan said. But Detroiters might find more to relate to in Schmidt’s poetic take on the experience of yellow jacket venom:

“Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

We had to look up W.C. Fields, but that’s beside the (sharp) point.

Is it a bad year for yellow jackets?

“They definitely started earlier than usual,” said Deveri Gifford, co-owner of Brooklyn Street Local, a restaurant in Corktown. “Usually, they start to get bad on our patio in mid-September, but this year, it was more like July.”

Is this a big year for the wasps? We don’t know for sure. Yellow jacket populations are not endangered, and no scientists we spoke with are aware of efforts to track yellow jacket populations in southeast Michigan.

A close up image of a yellow and black, winged wasp standing on the surface of a spherical donut with its mouth on the donut.
A yellow jacket samples a donut. Worker wasps kill other insects and feed them to larvae, but subsist on sugar themselves. Photo credit: Peter Chen

That’s little comfort to Gifford, who said one customer was stung this year, and many more have opted to sit inside, taking a cut out of her restaurant’s bottom line. She said a pest control service was unable to find a nest on their property, leaving her to explain to customers why they might not want to eat outside.

“They are wild animals that we have no control over,” she said. “The wasps want to share your jam. I really don’t know what else to say about it.”

What to do about yellow jackets in Detroit

Yellow jackets nest in the ground, on trees and sometimes in sheltered areas on the exterior of houses. If there’s a nest on your property, you may choose to remove it.

  • Some experts recommend spraying the nest entrance with insecticidal dust, which is widely available at hardware stores. Dumping ice into a ground nest and covering the entrance with a net may also work. Any nest elimination efforts should be carried out after dark, when the wasps are resting inside.
  • If the nest is especially large or hard to reach, consider getting professional help. We called around and got quotes from pest control services in Detroit ranging from $175 to $350 dollars, depending on the size and location of the nest.
  • Trap them — especially early in the season. Once a hive has reached its full size, attempting to trap individuals “is a drop in the bucket” and unlikely to significantly affect the population, Gifford said, speaking from experience. Recipes for homemade traps abound online, and they’re easily found in stores.
  • Don’t bother creating a fake wasp nest out of paper. This popular idea has been debunked.
  • Befriend a skunk or raccoon. These predators like to eat yellow jacket larvae and will destroy a nest in the process.
  • If you accidentally disturb a nest, run.

Koby (he/him) believes that love drives people to fight for their communities, and that curiosity is food for love. He enjoys the many moods of the Detroit River.