Beware of Yellow Jacket Nests the Size of Cars

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Super nests may contain several queens, as well as up to 18,000 yellow jackets. Charles Ray/Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Most of us know what to do when we spot a giant nest of angry stinging insects.

Running is good; inserting a stick to see if anyone's home is bad.

But a warning about the rise of yellow jacket super nests issued earlier this month by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System is likely to inspire heightened vigilance over the summer months — even as it's likely to ratchet up the paranoia.

Nests as Big as Small Cars

The agency, run by Alabama A&M University and Auburn University, suggests the state is poised for an outbreak of yellow jacket nests that are as big as small cars and could house as many as 15,000 of the distinct black-and-yellow wasps. That's a bit more than the typical nest population, which peaks at somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000.

A yellow jacket super nest inside an abandoned car
Yellow jackets aren't much for digging, but rather stack nest materials in gaps and crevices — and occasionally, cars. Charles Ray/Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Running is still a solid strategy. Squaring off against these super nests is the worst idea ever.

Just ask James Barron. The Alabama man told The New York Times he was going to fetch an axe from his shed when he spotted a nest running about seven feet along the wall.

"You don't think about looking at the roof," Barron told the Times. "It's just now really showed up, and it's gigantic."

Somehow Barron marshaled the courage to hose down the superstructure with poison. It cost him nearly a dozen stings, a relatively mild toll considering what could have been.

That nest likely housed anywhere from 15,000 to 18,000 yellow jackets.

Do Not Disturb

The lesson here? If you happen to spot one of these palatial homes to some of the most ornery insects on Earth, do not knock on the door.

"First and foremost, do not disturb the nest," Charles Ray, an entomologist working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, notes in the release. "While these giant nests often appear less aggressive than smaller colonies, it is important that people do not disturb the nests."

Instead, Ray urges anyone who spots one in Alabama to contact him by email — — so he can document the nest and collect specimens. If the nest needs to be removed, he strongly suggests calling in a pest control expert, although a super nest may prove too much even for a professional.

A yellow jacket supe nest on the side of a house.
Yellow jackets may seem quiet on the outside, but they're notorious for waking up angry. Charles Ray/Alabama Cooperative Extension System

One thing Ray is pretty sure about is that Alabamans will be dealing with a lot of these super nests over the summer. The last outbreak in the state was back in 2006, when around 90 mega-hives were reported. But the first of them wasn't spotted until mid-June. This year, reports of super nests emerged months earlier, suggesting Alabama is in for a bumper crop of mayhem.

Although two super nests spotted in May were in Chilton County, north of Montgomery, Ray says they've been reported across the state, even as far north as Talladega County.

Of all the stinging insects in the U.S., yellow jackets are responsible for the most human deaths, thanks to their their potent venom and their willingness to use it.

"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," Ray explains. "The nests I have seen this year already have more than 10,000 workers and are expanding rapidly."

Climate Change Increasing Nest Sizes

A yellow jacket nest in an discarded mattress.
Discarded mattresses are also popular haunts for massive nests. Charles Ray/Alabama Cooperative Extension System

So why are yellow jackets flourishing in Alabama? All indications suggest the work of an all-too familiar villain: climate change. Yellow jackets don't typically make it through winter. Unless, of course, they happen to have antifreeze in their veins, like the queen does. So, as Ray notes in the Times, "a surviving queen will have to start a colony from scratch every spring."

"With our climate becoming warmer, there might be multiple surviving queens producing more than 20,000 eggs each."

What's more, a milder-than-usual winter allows for more yellow jackets to survive, giving the queen a head start on her new mega-condo. Indeed, some nests are perennial, building from renovations that began the previous year.

It all adds up to a state that's literally feeling the business end of climate change — the end that really stings.