Wasp population rise bugging area | SierraSun.com

Wasp population rise bugging area

Erich Sommer, Sierra Sun

One of the driest winters in recent times has resulted in a record year for yellow jacket wasps in Northern California, much to the chagrin of customers who enjoy patio dining.

“Huge increase, unbelievable amount (of yellow jackets),” said Chris Bomely, a bartender at the Cottonwood Restaurant, referring to the increasing presence of yellow jackets. “We have four traps (on the patio) and they fill up, at least halfway, every day. It’s probably scaring away half of our outside customers.”

Bomely did say the restaurant has been able to accommodate customers who wish to move inside because the problem is worse during the day.

But officials at local parks, where moving indoors is not an option, are reporting complaints about yellow jackets on a “daily” basis.

“(The yellow jacket problem) seems like it’s been usually bad this year,” said Donner Memorial State Park Ranger Mark Hoffmann. “It’s been really chronic.”

Teri Smith at Tahoe Forest Hospital said the emergency room was also experiencing an increase in the number of people receiving treatment for bee stings.

“We are seeing more patients than we typically do,” Smith said. “But the (yellow jackets) don’t cause the same reaction as honey bees. Honey bees sting, but the (yellow jackets) bite, and they can bite over and over again But they don’t cause anaphylactic shock like a honey bee sting can.”

A mild winter is a key component in increasing the population of yellow jackets.

“I’ve heard estimates of 90 to 95 percent of the population dying off in a typical winter. But after a mild winter, if you only have 80 to 85 percent (die off), you already have double the population in the spring,” said Eric Mussen, an extension apiculturalist who studies bees at the University of California, Davis.

Dennis Murphy, a biology research professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, agreed with Mussen.

“The earlier-than-usual snow melt allows those surviving populations to grow rapidly and earlier in the season,” he said, adding that the problem will likely get worse before it gets any better.

“The longer it stays warm this autumn, the longer we will continue to see these populations build,” Murphy said.

Mussen said yellow jackets turn to scavenging once their natural food source begins to decline after a summer of feeding. He said yellow jackets, a type of wasp, prey on butterflies, moths, caterpillars and grasshoppers and other insects.

“They are predators, and they are meat-eaters,” Mussen said. “In the fall, they convert to being scavengers, and they will literally fight you for your food.”

However the news isn’t all bad, as yellow jackets are considered “beneficial insects” for much of the year, he added.

“For eight months out of the year, they are on our side. If it wasn’t for them, I think we would have quite a bit more defoliation,” because of insects like caterpillars and grasshoppers, Mussen said.

The best remedy for the situation may be to join the resorts in a “Pray for Snow” party.

“The best control is out of our control. And that is an early frost,” Murphy said.