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  • Writer's pictureGina Scrofano

How To Deter Wasps - Without Risks

Spring is here! Soon there will be warmer temperatures, sprouting flowers and lots of outdoor fun. Of course, along with those things also comes wasps, which can quickly turn a yard full of fun, into a yard full of fear. This leads to the use of insecticides and wasp killing sprays. Unfortunately, those methods are not only harmful to the environment, humans, and animals, but they kill essential pollinators, which plants, fruits, and vegetables need to grow, and that we need to survive. Luckily, there are inexpensive and effective methods that can be used in their place.

Why We Shouldn't Kill Wasps or Bees

According to the USDA, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "More than $15 billion a year in US crops are pollinated by bees", including (but not limited to) almonds, berries, cantaloupes, apples, squash, cucumbers, and potatoes. The NRDC additionally documented that, "US honey bees also produce about $150 million in honey annually."

Although wasps seem like a scary nuisance that must be killed, they're truly beneficial insects. Wasps contribute to the pollination of plants, including fruits and nuts. According to the US Forest Service, "Figs are keystone species in many tropical ecosystems" and "Fig wasps are responsible for pollinating almost 1,000 species of figs." Wasps also reduce fly larvae, and feed their young other insects that would otherwise damage crops and plants and that carry or transmit diseases.

The loss of bees and wasps would ultimately threaten animal survival; human and non-human alike.

Without pollinators, not only would humans suffer economically, but we would lose a major food source, as would domestic and wild animals. Wild animals that feed off plants requiring pollination would die, thus causing a deadly domino effect destroying ecosystems.

Killing certain species of bees is also unlawful. The critically endangered rusty patched bumble bee was granted protection under the US Endangered Species Act in 2017, as were seven species of bee indigenous to Hawaii in 2016. The bee population is struggling mostly due to loss of habitat, intensive farming, pesticides/insecticides and climate change.

Want To Cut To The Chase?

Scroll down to the 'Risk-Free Deterrent Methods' below (or read on to learn more about wasps, bees, and the risks of insecticides)

The Word On Wasps

Wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets are a bit reminiscent of the stereotypical Italian 'Mafia,' they're all part of the same family called the Vespidae. Granted, some fall under subfamilies, but they are all closely related and are very territorial. That territoriality sometimes leads to aggressive behavior, especially in hornets, who have been known to not only attack those who get too close for their comfort, but beehives as well. Wasps are also capable of stinging multiple times, without causing harm to themselves. However, not all wasps are equally aggressive, and their presence doesn't necessarily warrant their death. Wasps play an important role in our environment, and their natural territorial behavior doesn't mean they're 'evil,' they're simply trying to survive.

'Bald-faced hornets' are black and white wasps. They are larger than other wasps and also typically more round. These wasps build what look like grey teardrop or football-shaped nests that often hang from trees or building overhangs. Hornets prey on other insects that could otherwise damage crops and plants, while also keeping populations of insects in check and contributing to balanced ecosystems. Yellow jackets are a type of wasp often confused with bees due to their black and yellow coloring. However, bees have thick and very apparent hair, whereas yellow jackets have fine hair, which is nearly invisible to the naked eye. Yellow jackets build a variety of hives; some similar to that of paper wasps and others of 'bald-faced hornets'. Northeastern yellow jackets often build nests underground, in tree hollows and sometimes within cracks of buildings. Yellow jackets are scavengers, they feed their offspring dead insects, which essentially keeps the environment clean from piles of insect bodies.

Paper wasps are the less aggressive members of the family and will keep to themselves unless intentionally threatened. They can be brown, or yellow and black, making them easily confused with bees and yellow jackets. However, they do not live underground as some yellow jackets do; they chew on wood and mix it with saliva to create paper nests, which look like honeycombs, typically under decks, the eaves of houses, porch roofs, window ledges, under swimming pool railings, in or around grills, and sometimes under hot tub covers, and swing sets. Similarly to yellow jackets, their hair is less apparent than bees. Like hornets, paper wasps prey on other insects that damage crops and garden plants, particularly caterpillars and greenflies. They also contribute to the the reduction of insects that harbor bacteria and carry or transmit diseases. Paper wasps also contribute to plant 'tripping,' which helps self-pollinating plants grow, such as tomatoes and beans. Although some plants self-pollinate, they need help to transport the pollen grains from the anther (part of the male reproductive structure) onto its own stigma (the female reproductive structure). 'Tripping' is the process of that transport occurring due to physical force or vibration, like the wind, gravity, or visiting insects. According to research, "the tripping of bean flowers by visiting insects like wasps can increase bean yields by about a third."

To their credit, research is far more abundant on bees than wasps. However, it has been documented that paper wasps can recognize faces, similarly to humans and other primates. Although they do not pollinate as effectively as bees, due to having less abundant body hair, they do pollinate plants and fruits, and certainly play an important role in ecosystems, while protecting us and our gardens from other insects. With more research, it will likely come to light that wasps are smarter and more vital than they seem, and also pollinate more plants than we currently know.

The Buzz On Bees

All bees, except honey bees, are capable of stinging multiple times. Within bee colonies are queen bees, which lay fertilized eggs. Worker bees that gather pollen and defend the hive are also female, as male bees (drones) do not have stingers. That's right gentlemen, just leave the multitasking to the ladies.

Among honey bees, those workers have barbs on their stingers, which cause the stinker to become lodged into flesh when they sting. The stinger is then torn from the abdomen of the bee, leading to the bee's death. Although they're only capable of stinging once, the embedded stinger continues to deliver venom even after detachment from the bee. It also emits a pheromone that alerts other bees in the hive, attracting them to the sting site.

Bee's don't only use their stingers to defend their hive, they will group up and tightly surround enemies, creating a ball around them, which increases the temperature of the enemy to the point of which they cannot survive. A colony will also do this to a queen if she's injured or inefficiently laying eggs, an event referred to as 'balling the queen.' It looks like wasps aren't the only gangsters in town.

Bees are also remarkably smart. The brain of a honey bee has more neurons than other insects their size and is ten times denser than brains of mammals. According to research, "Bees demonstrate abstract thought, symbolic language, advanced visual perception, neuronal neuroplastic changes [ability to learn and adapt], decision-making, and planning."

Most bees will keep to themselves unless intentionally provoked. However, honey bees and Africanized bees are bit more aggressive. Africanized bees (aka 'killer bees') have been known to pursue a target for over a quarter of a mile. Like honey bees, Africanized bees will alert other bees of the hive and attack as a colony.

Insecticides And Sprays

Insecticides are a type of pesticide used to target wasps and other insects. Industrial insecticides are commonly used by companies that provide insect control services to kill and deter wasps from homes and gardens.

Commonly used insecticides, such as carbamate insecticides and organophosphate insecticides, contain chemicals that are highly toxic to the environment, humans, animals, fish, and of course, pollinating insects.

Dogs and cats exposed to insecticides can suffer a range of symptoms depending on the chemicals in them, such as fever, vomiting, anorexia, muscle tremors, seizures, respiratory failure, and death.

Canned sprays, such as Raid, contain prallethrin (aka pyrethroid insecticide/pyrethrin). Prallethrin is highly toxic to cats and can be fatal. It is considered less dangerous for dogs and commonly used in tick repellent, such as K9 Advantix. However, depending on their sensitivity, it can cause a severe allergic reaction in dogs, as well as general skin irritation, and should also not be inhaled. If ingested by cats or dogs it can cause a sore throat, abdominal pain, vomiting, tremors, seizures, and even death. Always consult with your vet when weighing the important decisions surrounding tick prevention for your companions.

Bottled insecticides, such as Temprid SC Insecticide, often contain synthetic pyrethroids, such as cyfluthrin. Cyfluthrin irritates the skin, eyes and respiratory tract, and causes nerve degeneration and necrosis in muscles of animals. Pyrethroids are also extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.

Insecticides are also toxic to humans when touched, inhaled or ingested. We are exposed to pesticides daily; when simply walking in the grass, eating produce, breathing outdoor air or inhaling particles left behind in the carpets of homes that have been sprayed. Children are particularly susceptible to insecticide toxins.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is evidence demonstrating associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, including brain tumors and acute lymphocytic leukemia, as well as reductions in IQ, hyperactivity disorder, and autism.

Sugar Traps

Another method commonly turned to are sugar traps. These can be purchased or made at home, by cutting a 2-liter bottle about 5 inches from the top and pouring sugar-water inside. The section that was cut off is then placed upside down back into the bottle and taped into place.

Insects attracted to sugar will fly in, but they won't be able fly out, causing them to drown. This approach is nontoxic, but it also kills pollinators and indiscriminately so. Although bees are more attracted to natural nectar, they will sometimes feed on sugar, which means sugar traps can kill bees too.

So When and How Do We Kill Wasps?

We don't. Instead, we spare the lives of animals, fish, our fellow humans, and pollinating friends by strategically using their natural behaviors to our advantage and deterring them before they build nests in the first place. A method not involving the unnecessary killing of beneficial creatures simply trying to survive in nature - who knew?

Risk-Free Deterrent Methods

1. Hang Fake Wasp Nests

Again, wasps are territorial. Because of this, they will not build nests within about 200' of another. By hanging a fake nest you are communicating to the wasps that the territory has already been claimed. Fake nests can be hung in areas where wasps frequent, such as roofs, decks, sheds, swing sets, around swimming pools (such as under pool railings and near diving boards), around hot tubs, etc.

There cannot be any real and active wasp nests in the area for this method to work, which means you must hang them before any wasps have the chance to build nests.

Wasps cannot fly in temperatures below approximately 50°, so the best time to hang the nests are after heavy snowfall and just before or early spring.

These nests are very inexpensive, can be purchased on Amazon and are surprisingly durable. I hung one on my deck and one underneath. They successfully deterred wasps and lasted multiple winters. Although, I do recommend bringing them inside for the winter and possibly during a heavy rain or wind storm.

2. Paint Building Eaves, Sheds and Under Decks

It is challenging for paper wasps to build nests on slick surfaces, so a fresh coat of glossy paint will potentially keep them hunting for a different place to call home.

3. Patch Up Cracks

Seal cracks and small openings around windows, doors, in walls, siding, and vinyl fencing. Those cracks are like gold to certain wasps that will cozy right up in there and hang their hats.

4. Keep Trash Sealed

Bring trash inside or seal/lock waste bins up tightly. Waste, especially from fruits, juices, and sugary treats will attract wasps like candy to a toddler. Keeping trash on lockdown will also help prevent wildlife/human conflict, such as with raccoons and bears.

5. Ward Off Wasps With Plants *Pet Toxicity Warning

Grow (or purchase) plants that naturally deter wasps, such as spearmint, eucalyptus, citronella, thyme, and wormwood. As a bonus, some of those plants also help repel mosquitos. Replace flowers with those pants in the areas you frequently sit or play.

*All mint plants, eucalyptus, and thyme are toxic to dogs and cats. Always check with your veterinarian before growing new plants. Click here for an ASPCA toxic/non-toxic plant list for dogs and here for cats.

6. Peppermint Oil *Pet Toxicity Warning

Studies show that wasps are not a fan of mint. Add dip cotton pads in peppermint oil and place them around the outside of your home, under the eaves and under decks, etc. Be certain the cotton pads are secure so they don't blow around your yard or neighborhood.

*Mint is toxic to pets. With that in mind, cats and dogs cannot walk upside down. So, it is possible to position minty cotton pads in places that wasps can get to, but that pets can't. Just be certain they cannot detach and land in a place that your pets have access to.

If Nests Already Exist On Your Property

1. Know Thy Frienemy

If some little flying pollinators have already claimed territory in your yard, it's important to know whether they're wasps or bees. The information above and the picture below will help you make that determination.

2. If It's Bees

Contact a local beekeeper. Beekeepers can safely relocate bees from your property and to a new area where they can live long happy lives and continue pollinating plants. Some beekeepers remove all bees, others only honey bees. You can find national beekeeper lists here and here.

3. If It's Wasps

If a wasp nest can't be ignored and you absolutely must destroy it to protect children or your pets, consider contacting a professional if you are allergic. If you're not allergic or decide to go it alone, wait until after dusk (when wasps are less active), wear thick gloves, glasses, layered clothing and a mask. Be sure to tuck your pants into your boots. It sounds over-the-top, but this will protect you from potential stings. Non-toxic options are available, such as plain soap and water.

Soap and Water: Add two tablespoons of dish soap to a spray bottle filled with water. Spray bottles can be used on small nests, a larger bottle with a hose attachment is more fitting for larger nests. Stand as far away as possible, aim directly towards the nest and spray it down thoroughly. Soap (sadly) clogs their breathing pores, but is said to be more humane as it kills them more quickly than insecticide sprays, which can take hours.

Insecticide: If you use an insecticide, let it be as a very last resort. Gear up as described above. Additionally, place a disposable tarp directly below the area you are spraying; protecting the ground. Do not inhale the fumes. Follow the instructions on the bottle and keep people and pets out of the area at least for the time-frame recommended by the manufacturer, if not longer.

Prevention Over Eradication

Be sure to start with prevention or follow any nest removal with the deterrence methods listed above. Not only will it contribute to the health and survival of Earth's hardworking pollinators, but of humans, our beloved pets, and wildlife as well.


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