What to Know About Yellow Jackets

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 21, 2022
4 min read

Yellow jackets are insects in the wasp family. You may find them outdoors on your lawn or in your backyard at the end of summer and fall. They live in nests in large colonies and can be easily mistaken for bees. They can get quite aggressive if you disturb their nest.

There are three common types of yellow jacket wasps:

  1. The German yellow jacket (Vespula germanica)
  2. The Western yellow jacket (Vespula pensylvanica)
  3. The Eastern yellow jacket (Vespula maculifrons)

The yellow jacket is a bee-sized, black insect with distinct yellow markings on the head and yellow bands around the abdomen. The face is mostly yellow with dark eyes. Yellow jackets have large antennae and fold their wings lengthwise when not in motion. They like fruits, meat, and sweet drinks. Because of this, you may find them hanging out in parks and picnic areas.

Yellow jackets are social insects and very territorial in nature. A yellow jacket colony can get quite aggressive when disturbed. Moreover, they can sting multiple times when provoked. Their sting is very painful and may cause allergic reactions in some individuals. 

The yellow jacket sting may also make you develop hypersensitivity. This means that any future stings might cause severe reactions.

After getting stung by a yellow jacket wasp, you may experience the following at the affected area:

  • Pain
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Redness

On top of reactions near the site of the sting, you may also experience symptoms of an allergic reaction that include:

  • Coughing
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Hives
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • A tickling feeling in the throat
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting

Treatment for a yellow jacket sting includes the following steps:

  • Clean the affected area with soap and water.
  • Try to reduce pain and swelling by placing a cold wrap (ice packs in a thin cloth) on the affected area for about 10 minutes on and off for about 30 minutes to an hour.
  • Try to keep the affected area raised (if possible) to reduce swelling.
  • If the pain and itching are too much, consider getting some over-the-counter pain medications and antihistamines.

There are a few things you can do to prevent getting stung by yellow jackets when going outdoors. Consider doing the following:

  • Try not to apply scented products like perfumes, hair products, and others before spending time outside.
  • Avoid wearing clothes that are brightly colored.
  • Avoid walking barefoot or in open shoes while outdoors or on the lawn.
  • Consider applying insect repellents.
  • If you know of a place with a yellow jacket nest, avoid it as much as you can until you have a professional remove it.
  • Always stay calm when you encounter a yellow jacket and walk away slowly.

Here are a few tips you can use to control yellow jackets:

  1. Regularly clear garbage from picnic sites and keep garbage cans tightly closed. This will help prevent yellow jackets from foraging in the garbage.
  2. While picnicking, avoid opening sugary drinks until they are served. If your drink is open, always check to see if there are any yellow jackets in the container before proceeding to have a sip. This may help you avoid getting stung accidentally in the mouth or throat.
  3. If you spot an underground nest, get insecticides meant for yellow jackets from a hardware store and apply them. Place the nozzle at the nest entrance and do it at night or in the evening. The late hours of the day is when all the yellow jackets are back in the nest from foraging. Also, consider wearing protective clothing while doing this. Protective clothing may include a hat, veil, gloves, and coveralls. Make sure you read and follow every instruction on the insecticide label.
  4. Consider setting traps for yellow jackets. Some less expensive and non-toxic traps for wasps include the yellow jacket inn, wasp trap, and the oak stump farm wasp trap. Check the different types of wasp traps in your local garden center and select the best option for you. You can also make a homemade trap hanging a slightly diced raw fish or meat about two inches above a mixture of water and detergent.

Since yellow jackets like foraging in landfills, they may carry harmful bacteria (germs) on their stingers. Getting stung by a contaminated yellow jacket stinger can cause infections or blood poisoning.

Besides the pain and possible allergic reactions (hives, pruritis, and angioedema) a yellow jacket sting can cause you to develop other severe medical conditions. Sometimes, this can even lead to death. Health conditions that may arise include:

  1. Gastrointestinal discomfort. Getting stung by a yellow jacket can cause digestive tract issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  2. Cardiopulmonary conditions. These are conditions related to the heart. You may get hypotension (low blood pressure), pulmonary embolism, bronchospasm, and arrhythmias.
  3. Neurological disorders. Getting stung multiple times by a yellow jacket may put you at risk of getting neurological disorders like encephalitis, cerebral infarction, and more.

After getting multiple stings, you are also likely to get acute conditions like haemolysis, rhabdomyolysis, encephalopathy, and renal (kidney) failure. Cardiovascular issues are more likely to occur in children.

While the yellow jacket is aggressive and potentially dangerous to humans, it can be beneficial to you and the environment. Yellow jackets are great pollinators. Many nectar-producing plants depend on them to reproduce. Farmers also can benefit from yellow jackets since they feed on other insects that harm crops. 

Moreover, a yellow jacket may also protect your ornamental plants by feeding on destructive insects. Yellow jackets also get rid of blowfly larvae and house flies that could be a nuisance in your household.