Eastern Yellowjacket - Vespula maculifrons
Bees & Wasps Index | Parasitica | Aculeata | Symphyta

Live adult yellowjackets photographed in the wild at DuPage County, Illinois. Size: 12mm
These yellowjackets are famous for their fondness for soda cans at picnics: many people are extremely fearful of swallowing one that has crawled into their drink. Hint - if you supply only diet beverages, drinks containing no sugar, these critters will not bother you at least as far as canned liquids are concerned. I have, however, watched them eat salami sticking out the side of my lunchtime sandwich, and they love fruit as well.
Yellowjackets nest in the ground. I found this very busy nest entrance in a crack between flagstones in a forest preserve picnic pavilion. Very handy for easy access to the potato salad and other goodies to which  they seem implacably attracted. The sterile worker females were issuing forth at regular intervals, and I estimate there were at least dozens of individuals out marauding in support of the colony.

We had a dreadful drought in 2005, and it seemed a boon to these very prolific insects. For all their other faults, the yellowjackets are important pollinators of many flowering plants. In this age of the honey bee decline and decline in hymenopteran numbers generally, plants need all the help they can get. Nevertheless, these little bastards can pump alarm pheromones at an alarming rate when their nest in under attack, attracting fresh recruits to the fray. And they will sting you if you are within a 20 or 30-foot radius. As many times as they like. 

One hot summer, my dad asked me to eradicate a nest right next to his back door, and I (very reluctantly) agreed. A can of Raid flying insect spray later, my dad and I had both been stung mutiple times, and those yellowjacket were VERY riled up, defending their nest.  Don't try this at home, kids. Yellowjackets don't have barbs on their stingers like honeybees. They'll grab onto your clothing and just keep stinging you until you get the picture and swat them to the ground - and it takes a healthy swat, too, kinda like deer flies. The stings were very painful, too, and itched and burned for days afterwards.

Oh, and the yellowjackets just kept coming back from the field, and the Raid killed many of them but did not penetrate the nest. So our little exercise was for naught. The nest lived on and prospered for the rest of the summer.

I was able to get within just a few inches of these gals, and not one of them ever paid me any mind. That's the key to avoid trouble with all manner of bees and wasps: they will ignore you and may not be aware of your presence at all if you don't make overt movements. Don't swat gratuitously.
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Order Hymenoptera: Bees, Wasps, & Ants
Hymenoptera (Latin for membrane wing) is a vast assemblage of insects second only to Coleoptera (beetles) in the number of described species. Hymenoptera number some 115,000 species - of which 18,000 live in North America. Hymenopterans inhabit a wide variety of habitats, and show an incredible diversity in size, behavior, structure and color.
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