AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. - Imagine a colony of yellowjackets that is 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 Charles Ray, an entomologist working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said that 2019 may be shaping up to mirror that year.
It’s called a perennial yellowjacket nest. Entomologists believe 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 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,” said Ray. “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 3 to 4 times more than a normal nest,” said 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.”
Ray believes 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 said. “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. 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.
Ray has some important tips for people who think they may have one of these giant yellowjacket colonies on their property.
“First and foremost, do not disturb the nest,” said Ray. “While these giant nests often appear less aggressive than smaller colonies, it is important that people do not disturb the nests.”
Next, Ray wants people to contact him so he can document the nest and collect insect specimens. People should contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, if people need to have the nests removed, Ray says it is a task only for licensed commercial pest control operators. He warns that even some commercial operators will not tackle these giant perennial yellowjacket nests.