August 19, 2020 Moonshine Minutes

Going to war with wasps; women of STEM



JD: Friends, we’re officially mid-week. Moonshine arts and culture editor Juliana Demarest here with your Moonshine Minutes on this happy hump day, with an episode exploring just why it is that yellow jackets get so nasty in late summer, followed by your last three opportunities to learn something new and exciting through the Headwaters Institute for Science Women in STEM speaker series. 

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Every year it’s the same story: Put your wasp traps out in early spring, they say. That’s when the queens come out, they say. So every spring, I load up on pricey store-bought bait for my yellow jacket traps. I arm them with their attractant-soaked cotton balls and then I wait. And wait. And wait some more. And — nothing! Not a single bugger takes the bait!


Feeling defeated, year after year I put up the white flag and abandon my springtime mission. All summer long, the vibrant yellow traps decorate my trees like it’s Christmas in July, and then it happens: late summer arrives and the yellow jackets get so bad that my kids won’t play outside because until the sun goes down and the temperature cools for the evening, they are under constant attack by dive-bombing meat bees on a kamikaze mission. Yet these hearty creatures aren’t doomed to die for their cause: Unlike honeybees whose barbed stingers will come off after stinging, spelling their demise, the smooth stingers of the yellow jacket allow it to sting repeatedly without dying.

While they’re commonly referred to as meat bees because they’re known to go on the attack for a good chunk of protein, yellow jacket wasps are not bees and in fact are more closely related to hornets. Western yellow jackets (Vespula pensylvanica) have a brighter yellow on their bodies compared to honeybees, which are more orange in color, and they also have a yellow ring around each eye — although I don’t recommend getting close enough to take a look. They’re way more aggressive than honeybees and will attack unprovoked unlike true bees, which attack only when they feel threatened.

Yellow jackets do not derive nutrition from pollen, and instead forage and hunt protein and sugar from sources like carrion, fruit, or whatever meat product you’re trying to sink your teeth into at your backyard barbecue. Wasp colonies are often found living in a hole in the dirt or rotted out trees, but also can be found building their paper-like nests high up in the rafters. Typically, the queens are the only ones to survive through winter, but during milder winter seasons, whole colonies have been known to pull through, allowing them to grow in numbers and explaining why it is that some summers are worse for yellow jacket attacks than others.

So why is it that you can live in harmony with meat bees all spring and summer, but as the warm weather starts to draw to a close, they start to make their presence more known and seem to go on the attack? The short answer: They’re hangry. As fall nears, temps start to cool off and the queen stops laying eggs. There are fewer mouths to feed but food sources start to become scarce. The yellow jackets begin to starve, resulting in them becoming more aggressive.

There are a number of commercial wasp traps available on the market, one of the most popular in our area being the Rescue W-H-Y trap for wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets. Their neon-like yellow can be seen hanging in trees and from rafters around the region. They work particularly great later in the season as wasps become more aggressive, but can be pricey to have to keep rebaiting with store bought attractant.

In spring and early summer, they’re hungry for protein, so a chunk of chicken or beef placed inside the bait compartment will do the trick. I once heard of someone baiting her traps with canned cat food. Later in summer and into fall, they’re after more sugary sustenance (which explains why I don’t catch many earlier in wasp season!), so the store-bought bait works great. You can also make your own sugar-water attractant or use a super sweet substance like syrup or jam.

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So you’ve taken care of your meat bee problem? Let’s talk science and women. Headwaters Science Institute is in the midst of its Women in STEM Speaker Series. You still have three opportunities to listen to prominent women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics discuss their respective areas of expertise — right from the comfort of your own home. These talks are designed to show kids what careers in STEM look like and to provide a fun element to connecting with scientists even though gathering in person is not presently possible.

With the face of education changing constantly, Headwaters believes it is important to offer free education for all students that is safe to participate in from home. The goal is to teach hands-on science, but through online delivery.

Of this engaging series, Headwaters Science Institute founder and executive director Meg Seifert said, “I’m really excited for our speakers. Our team worked hard to bring in some great women. I also work hard to inspire women in science and we have these amazing women that will be joining us over the two weeks of the fundraiser.”

The series kicked off Aug. 17th with “Mother of Sharks” Melissa Cristina Marquez, a well-known Australian shark scientist who’s been featured on the Nat Geo, BBC, and Discovery channels. On Aug. 18th, career hydrologist Annalise Blum discussed the impacts of flooding. But fret not if you missed out on these first two speakers, you still have three chances to soak up some science knowledge.

 Tonight at 5:30, Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of five critically acclaimed books and pioneer of citizen science, is the featured presenter. Jessica Tse will highlight microbiology and women in science at 11 a.m. on Aug. 25th, and on the evening of Aug. 26th, Tucker Malarkey, author of national best-sellers Stronghold and An Obvious Enchantment, will speak at 5:30.

 Tune-in to these talks for a glimpse into science careers and to learn why science education is important to our community on the Headwaters Science Institute Facebook page or via YouTube Live. These presentations, all of which are followed with a question-and-answer period, are free, but those attending are encouraged to show support by making a donation on the Headwaters website:

Seifert explained that Headwaters has transitioned all of its program time to online learning, with all of the lessons available at no charge. She noted, “We want every student and teacher to have access regardless of income. Therefore, instead of schools paying a fee for service, we have to raise the money to produce these lessons. Most schools have budget cutbacks as well as increased expenses and they can’t help cover the costs right now. We are committed to working harder than ever to get everyone great science.”

You can find these and other local items of interest in the August print edition of Moonshine Ink, on newsstands now, or at Support local journalism. Become a member at


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