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Indentifying ground dwelling, social, stinging insects ... vespidae of some type?

Hi all,

I'm afraid I don't have a photograph (yet anyway), but I'm hoping you can help me identify this bug following a lengthy description. I live in rural, southern West Virginia (heart of the Appalachians, at about approx 1800 feet -- a stone's throw from the New River Gorge Bridge, FYI). I have about 1.5 acres of yard that I mow; and lately have had a problem with stinging insects.

I'm assuming they are some type of yellow jacket, although they don't fit the physical description of any that I've found while researching on the Web. But behaviorally, they are dead-on.

These buggers (that's probably an old pun around here; sorry) live in a hole in the ground; you see them constantly going in and out during the day and there are usually a few flying about near the entrance. They aren't particularly aggressive; If I walk slowly I can walk within a few feet of the nest entrance and not get attacked/stung. There is a crab apple tree on the property, next to the house, and the rotting fruit attracts all sorts of bugs, including the standard run-of-the-mill yellow jacket, but I've never had a particular problem with them or any other type of wasp, even when cooking out. But if I run over the nest entrance with the lawn mower, the bugs in question get all bent out of shape, and I get drilled several times --not a huge horror-movie swarm or anything -- but you get the idea.

I just noticed this one nest for the first time last month; this past weekend I found two more on the other side of the yard. They are not near the house, and not an issue 'cept for when cutting the grass. As I'm going to be gone the whole month of October, and it is close to winter anyway, I'm probably going to just let it go (hoping the grass won't need cut when I get back in November -- that will all depend on Mama Nature).

But I'm curious to know what they are -- their response to the nest being disturbed, and the fact that they nest under ground in a colony, and are more aggressive at this time of year (I'm assuming the nests have been there since last spring), suggests yellow jackets, but these are not like the big species of yellow jackets you see at picnics and or around dumpsters and garbage cans at busy parks (or at the bottom of a crab apple tree). These are small; I'd guestimate about 1cm or 1/4 inch in length (much smaller than your typical food-attracting yellow jacket), and appear to be more orange than yellow.

I'm sorry I can't give you a more detailed description, but after this past weekend of grass cutting and getting stung four times, I'm not eager to get close enough to be examining wings and color patterns and so forth.

So if anyone has any ideas/information, I'd appreciate it. Just like to know what type of yellow jacket it is, or if it's something else ...



Yellowjackets indeed.
There is no other insect that fits your description other than yellowjackets. Many species nest in abandoned rodent burrows and other underground cavities. Only a few species are picnic pests that have learned to scavenge and have abandoned the predatory lifestyle of related species. The colony will expire with the first frost, if not sooner. The workers die, leaving the next generation to the fate of hibernating queens. Generally, no nest is re-used, so you won't have the same problem next year, at least not in that particular location:-) Look at our yellowjacket images in the guide pages, especially the southern yellowjacket, Vespula squamosa. That may be the species you describe.

Actually, I'm thinking vulgaris or maculifrons
Hi Eric,

I stumbled across your name at What's That Bug, and thought about e-mailing you. I went out this afternoon and got as close as a dared with my cheap digital camera -- my good SLR digital camera has bit the dust alas -- and snapped a few shots. As you can see, these are clearly yellow, and while the resolution isn't what it could be, judging from the patterns on the abdomen and thorax, I think they most closely resemble the eastern yellow jacket (vespula maculifrons) or the common yellow jacket (vespula vulgaris), both of which are found here in West Virgninia, and typically nest in the ground.

I do have a couple photos of the bugs in question whose abdomen stripes have a distinctly orange hue, but the pattern is the same as those of the yellow ones, and the patterns don't resemble the southern yellow jacket. But then, you are the expert, what do you think?

And by the way, someone on here pointed out that the gentleman who died might have been allergic; I thought so too, which is why I would have liked to have seen a follow up news story. In any event, the original story can be found here

Unidentified stinging insects 6, Jeff 0

I don't know
what they are. However, I suggest you stop running over the nest with your lawn mower...for your own safety. I recently watched a special on bugs that included the story of a man that was killed by yellow jackets after running over their nest with a riding mower.

Well duh :)
LOL, I came across that story too. After all my research on yellow jackets, it seems to me that this was an unusual case. Nests are not typically that big (depending on the species, there are usually only a few thousand workers), nor the wasps that aggressive; the ones in my yard are certainly not on either count. Plus, I couldn't find any follow-up stories; I would like to know if it was the multiple yellow jacket stings that actually killed the elderly gentleman, or if it was something related, such as a stress-induced heart attack. An autopsy was performed, but I couldn't find any follw up news stories ...

Anyway, I just discovered these yellow jackets or whatever they are last month, the last time I cut the grass; this last weekend -- the first time mowing since the discovery -- I tried to cut around the nest, giving it a roughly four to six foot perimeter, but apparently the noise and the vibration of the lawnmower is enough to set them off. Then I discovered the other two nests as well -- I saw them before they saw me, but again, the sound and vibration apparently upset them, even before I got real close to the nests.

In contrast, I can walk slowly and quietly up to the nest entrances -- sans lawnmower -- and they don't seem the least bit concerned with me, as long as they aren't riled up to begin with.

If I need to cut the grass again this season, I may try the glass bowl option I came across in my research ...


Unidentified stinging insects 6, Jeff 0

What is
the glass bowl option?

The Glass Bowl Option ...
Sounds ominous, doesn't it? THE GLASS BOWL OPTION. I can just imagine the President sitting deep in an underground bunker, alarms going off in the background, and some grim military type wallking up to him saying: "There's no other option left, sir." The president sighs and shakes his head. "I hoped it wouldn't come to this. It's time for the Glass Bowl Option."

Anyway, I came across this solution to subterranean yellow jacket nests in a couple of different places on the Web; I don't recall where, exactly; one place might even have been here.

But apparently if you take a large clear glass jar or bowl and put it over the nest, the yellow jackets will spend all day trying to penetrate the glass -- because they can see daylight -- rather than digging out from underneath its edge and/or creating a new entrance for the nest. At night they go back inside; the next day, same thing happens -- the bowl/jar fills up with confused yellow jackets. Eventually, after several weeks, they all starve to death, end of problem.

While this strikes me as a simple, elegant and ecologically sound method, as opposed to some sort of pesticide agent or petro chemical, it also seems inordinately cruel -- a slow, painful death -- even for non vertabrate bug types. If I had kids or pets running around the yard, and had no option but to destroy the nest, I'd be more apt to use a method that just killed the little buggers outright, I think. As it is, I'm just going to wait patiently for the first good frost ...

But I was thinking that, in the future, if I have a nest to deal with, and need to mow the lawn, I could just go out the night before, cover the nest up with said bowl, cut the grass the next day, then remove the bowl that night. Grass is cut, I'm not stung, yellow jackets live, my karma is intact, everybody wins.


Unidentified stinging insects 6, Jeff 0

Man who died after running over a nest with his riding mower
He could have died from an allergic reaction to the yellowjacket’s venom. I have not heard this story before so please excuse me if I am wrong.

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