Alabama

These giant nests popping up in Alabama are filled with thousands of yellow jackets

Yellowjacket super nests could make a comeback in Alabama

Charles Ray, an entomologist working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, warns that yellow jacket super nests may make a comeback in 2019. Alabama experienced super nests in 2006. They can hold thousands of yellowjackets.
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Charles Ray, an entomologist working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, warns that yellow jacket super nests may make a comeback in 2019. Alabama experienced super nests in 2006. They can hold thousands of yellowjackets.

Inside that rusted out ‘57 Chevy in the backyard, you might find thousands upon thousands of yellow jackets in a nest that covers the car’s entire interior.

It’s a rare occurrence but folks in Alabama might soon see a number of these big nests. Charles Ray, an entomologist working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and a research fellow at Auburn University, said he’s seeing nests in the state earlier than he has before.

Two have been spotted in Alabama already, and there may be a third. There were more than 90 of them spotted in the state in 2006, according to a news release from the extension and Auburn.

The large nests Ray is talking about are called perennial yellow jackets nests. The nests have existed for at least two years.

He described the formation process in a phone interview Friday like this:

Normally, yellow jackets have an annual life cycle. A single queen starts a colony from scratch in the spring, usually in an abandoned rodent hole in the ground or another type of empty space. The first group of workers she raises takes over foraging and nest building duties. The queen then turns her attention to egg-laying. In mid-August, the colony may have nearly 4,000 workers.

Around the same time, a huge number of potential new queens for the next year are produced. If only one makes it through the winter to start a new colony, the original colony is deemed successful. Seasons change. Usually, workers don’t survive cold weather — leaving fertilized queens to start the cycle again elsewhere.

That’s not what happens with perennial nests, Ray said.

In those colonies, some workers live. Some of the young queens do not leave. The colony could start a second year with anywhere from 35-100 queens and 1,000 to 4,000 workers.

“If you do the math,” he said. “The perennial nests can be very large.”

Possible reasons for the survival of the colony could be a mild winter and an abundant food supply. The colony needs more room to grow, and then you’ll see the development of these large nests like the one that would consume the interior of a car.

Ray counted a small perennial colony in 2006 that had about 15,000 yellow jackets. He recalled reports of a nest in South Carolina that had a quarter of a million yellow jackets. These types of nests are a rare occurrence in the United States but more common in places like New Zealand, Ray said.

“It was more yellow jackets than most people ever want to see,” he said. “It’s a fairly infrequent phenomenon.”

Two of these large nests were seen in May in Chilton County, north of Montgomery. And there may be another one there. These were seen a month before nests popped up in 2006. Then, nests were found all over the state and as far north as Talladega County, Ray said.

“The last time I saw two in a short period of time was 2006,” he said. “And the next thing you know, I have good records for over 90.”

There were a few nests in Georgia in 2006, and there could be some in the Columbus area this year, Ray said.

“It’s very possible. In 2006, we also had them in Russell County which isn’t far,” he said. “It pretty much boils down to is there enough food to get that colony through the winter.”

If you see a large, perennial nest leave it alone. If you feel like you have to do something about it, call a licensed commercial pest control operator, Ray said.

Ray wants people with these nests to contact him via email at raychah@auburn.edu. He’ll take pictures and collect a few specimens.

“Please,” he asks.

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