Yellowjacket supernests reappearing in Alabama

|  June 27, 2019
PHOTO: ALABAMA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SYSTEM

PHOTO: ALABAMA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SYSTEM

Imagine a colony of yellowjackets the size of a Volkswagen Beetle filled with 15,000 of the stinging insects. Now, imagine more than 90 of these supernests in Alabama. It happened in 2006, and Dr. Charles Ray, an entomologist working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, says that 2019 may be shaping up to mirror that year.

It’s called a perennial yellowjacket nest. Entomologists theorize that milder winters, combined with an abundant food supply, allow some colonies to survive and enter spring with much larger numbers. Additionally, the normal cues that would cause queens to disperse may not happen. Researchers have documented that these massive colonies often have multiple queens.

A normal yellowjacket nest is usually located in the ground or a cavity. It may peak at 4,000 to 5,000 workers that do not survive cold weather, leaving queens to disperse and form new colonies in the spring.

The perennial yellowjacket nests that concern Dr. Ray bear little resemblance to normal colonies.

“These perennial nests may be several feet wide and have many thousands of workers, far more than an average nest,” he says. “We have found them attached to home exteriors and other places you might not expect to find yellowjackets.”

“The most workers I have counted in a perennial nest is about 15,000, or about three to four times more than a normal nest,” says Dr. Ray, who is also a research fellow in Auburn University’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology. “However, one nest in South Carolina was documented with more 250,000 workers.”

Dr. Ray predicts that the state may see large numbers of perennial nests this year.

“We confirmed two nests in May, and have indications of a third,” he says. “This puts us several weeks earlier than in 2006, when we identified the first giant nest on June 13.

“If we are seeing them a month sooner than we did in 2006, I am very concerned that there will be a large number of them in the state,” he adds.“The nests I have seen this year already have more than 10,000 workers — and are expanding rapidly.”

In 2006, nests were located in multiple counties, with the most northern location occurring in Talladega County.

Dr. Ray has two important tips if you encounter a giant yellowjacket colony.

“First and foremost, do not disturb the nest,” he says. “While these giant nests often appear less aggressive than smaller colonies, it is important that people do not disturb the nests.”

Next, Dr. Ray request that you contact him (raychah@auburn.edu) so he can document the nest and collect insect specimens.

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