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Sting operation: Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets offer benefits despite their bad-temper reputation
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Sting operation: Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets offer benefits despite their bad-temper reputation

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There's a reason the age-old expression "Stepping into a hornet's nest" carries such strong connotation.

"It's the fear of being stung that leaves so many people associating this group of insects with such specific behavior, even though they do so much more," said Kristi Bugajski, assistant professor of biology at Valparaiso University, who specializes in entomology, the study of insects.

"Every insect has a purpose."

Late summer is the season when wasps, hornets and yellow jackets become more apparent, while busily building nests and foraging before the first hint of fall's chill.

"Unlike the two-wing group of insects that flies belong to, wasps and hornets are grouped with ants and bees in the four-wing family called hymenoptera," Bugajski said.

"But despite both having their stingers, wasps and hornets are different than their bee counterparts."

While bees serve the important purpose of pollination, wasps, hornets and even the yellow and black larger bee-lookalike yellow jackets do not provide such a function.

"The legs of bees are different, with hairs for the pollen to attach to while flying flower to flower,"  Bugajski said.

"Wasps and hornets have other advantages for our homes and gardens, even though they've become associated more with being in the way."

And as a reminder, Bugajski emphasizes that like bees, it's only females in the wasp and hornet family who are capable of stinging, which only happens when they are provoked or feel they must defend.

With the exception of the solo "mud dauber" wasp, known for its long mud tube nests, traditional wasps and hornets live together in colonies, like bees, and build paper nests, while yellow jackets (which are technically a type of wasp) prefer ground nests.

Gene Matzat, Purdue Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources based at the LaPorte office since 2006, refers anyone who might be skeptical about the value of wasps, hornets and yellow jackets to read a published pamphlet available for free download on the Purdue website (www3.ag.purdue.edu) called "Social Wasps: Paper Wasps, Hornets and Yellow Jackets."

As explained in print, in addition to the artistic natural beauty of the large paper pear-shaped wasp nests and the paper honeycomb varieties, wasps and hornets capture and consume insect pests like flies, caterpillars and beetle larvae.

Tina St. Aubin, executive director of Valparaiso Community Festivals and Events, Inc., has spent the past four years guiding Valparaiso's decades-old September Popcorn Festival tradition, which not only attracts thousands of visitors to Valparaiso, but also yellow jackets.

"This is my fourth year, and I've discovered the weather can have a lot to do with how many yellow jackets are drawn to the event," she said.

"If it's cooler and cloudy, not as many. But for a hot and sunny day, there's always more."

Fortunately, St. Aubin and her festival staff and crew are always ready.

"We always have our EMTs stationed and ready to help and we also make sure our logistics crew members have bee sting kits ready for anyone who might have allergies to being stung," she said.

Most of all, St. Aubin said she's proud of how the Valparaiso Public Works crews are prompt with emptying trash bins, which are the favorite places for swarming yellow jackets.

As an entomologist, Bugajski applauds this "on the offense, rather than defense" approach, and also has an additional tip.

"People always worry about setting down soda cans and the possibility that a yellow jacket will slip inside unknowingly before the next sip, resulting in a serious sting," Bugajski said.

"But many people don't realize they do not bother anything that is a diet soda, because they aren't attracted to artificial sweeteners."

This year's 34th Annual Popcorn Festival will take place on Saturday, September 8. For more information about the festival, visit valparaisoevents.com/popcorn%20festival.

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