Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







All That Buzz Are Not Bees

The good ol' summertime brings camping trips, family reunions, picnics in the park, fairs, baseball games and patio cookouts. And food. Lots of food.

Outdoor summer events and food go together like a horse and carriage. All of that food is shared with family, friends and neighbors—and, frequently, with insects.

Most insect visitors to our summer food fests are harmless. They just show up to share in the feast. However, a few of the picnic interlopers of the insect kind can be dangerous. They are the stinging insects.

Most people refer to any insect that can sting as a bee. To be sure, bees can sting. But there are other stinging insects and, technically, they are not bees.

For instance, that scourge of summer, the yellow jacket. Most people call these insects bees. Even such learned individuals as the poet Ogden Nash called yellow jackets bees. In his poem, “The Bird to the Bees,” he laments the fact that you can't say “please” to bees. It seems the bee followed the poet around and tried to share food. Such behavior is that of a yellow jacket, not a honey bee, which Nash alludes is the insect in question.

The same mistake was made by pioneer national poet Philip Freneau in his poem, “To a Honey Bee.” In that poem, the insect comes to share in the poet's glass of wine. Such behavior is typical of the yellow jackets that constantly invade our beverage containers in search of a sip.

Yellow jackets, like honey bees, are social insects. But yellow jackets belong to an insect group known as paper wasps. These wasps build their nests out of wood chewed into a paper-like substance called carton. Wasps that make such nests include those that make their paper nest in windows and under the eves. Also included is the balk-faced hornet that makes the balloon-like nest attached to a tree limb.

The yellow jacket makes its nest underground so most people don't see it. But it is made of paper. Such nests can contain up to 1,000 individual insects during August and September. And, with lots of nests around, human and yellow jacket encounters are common.

So how do we reduce the prospect of being stung by a yellow jacket intent on sharing our drink or sandwich? First, don't wave or slap at the offending insect.  This only serves to aggravate the insect and increase the probability of getting stung. In general, all stinging insects, including the yellow jacket, are unlikely to sting when away from their nest.

A person can also reduce stings by keeping their drink covered. Sipping soda through a straw from a lid-covered container is good advice. Also, wearing perfumes or fruity-smelling after-shave attracts yellow jackets.

When having a picnic, keep all meats and sweets covered. These are the two items that are attractive to foraging yellow jackets. Also, clean up spills around the picnic area. Once a yellow jacket has discovered food, others from the colony will show up to share in the feast. Make sure that trash cans are covered with tight-fitting lids.

So this year, when a yellow- and black-colored flying insect attempts to share your drink or snags a hunk of ham from your sandwich, don't call it a honey bee. Honey bees are too busy gathering nectar to spend time stealing food from some old human. Blame it on the yellow jackets.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox