Our Sunday Guest, Kat Koch, with “Yellow Jacket Stings”   Leave a comment

Yellow Jacket Stings. These words are enough to make the average American recall memories of checkered tablecloths and picnics, swarmed by black and yellow bodies. Most people view this insect as a pest. While they can be dangerous, they are also incredibly beneficial for your garden, and are a source of food for skunks, bears and some birds.


These members of the Vespidae family are pollinators as well as insect eaters. In fact I recently learned of a charming habit of the worker wasps involving their consumption of insects. Trophallaxis is a process where they catch insects and chew them into a paste, which they then feed to the wasp larvae — yum! Wolves and birds do a similar kind of thing, but somehow, while still cool, when an insect does that it seems just a little bit creepier.

There are 16 species of Yellow Jackets in the United States, only two of them native: the Eastern and Western Yellow Jacket. The other 14 come from such countries as Germany and Honduras. Most of them are around a half inch long and have the characteristic black and yellow striped body. Some species create their nests underground, while others build them in trees or human-made structures. Only the females sting, and, unlike honeybees, Yellow Jackets can sting multiple times.

Did you know you that you can track Yellow Jackets? They, too, leave physical marks of their presence. In order to build a nest, these wasps harvest leaves and wood pulp, for example, your patio furniture. Little grooves will begin to form in the wood as they harvest. Since they use different sources of pulp, if you look closely you’ll see that their nests are actually different shades of color. Fascinating!

Yellow Jackets are known as social wasps. Their nests can have up to 200 members — more if the winters are mild. Life centers around the queen, who is the main reproducer. Males and sterile female worker wasps make up the rest of the population. Yellow Jackets become most aggressive late summer through early autumn, when they are defending their young while simultaneously moving towards their own deaths.

Encounters with Yellow Jacket nests can be a harrowing experience. Some people are deathly allergic to their stings (0.5 percent of children, and about 3 percent of adults), and need an Epi-Pen injection and medical supervision to save their lives. If you are lucky, however, like I’ve been, interactions with yellow jackets can also provide an amazing learning opportunity.


For about five summers, I spent time instructing and directing summer camps. To help keep the campers safe, we were always on the look-out for Yellow Jacket nests. I’ve seen class groups accidentally step on a nest, get stung repeatedly, and then shift right into an incredible learning experience, using the widely found plant called plantain to help reduce the swelling and pain of the stings. Kids never, ever forget that plant, because its medicine is so effective!

So, what about that 0.5 to 3 percent of the population that is deathly allergic to Yellow Jacket stings? How can you tell if someone is going into anaphylactic shock? The following symptoms are common: itching all over, hives or swelling stemming from sting site, shortness of breath, flushing, throat constriction and metallic taste in the mouth, to name a few.


Treatment of a Yellow Jacket sting depends on the number and severity of your symptoms. Call 911 immediately if you are in any doubt about treatment.

Encounters of a curious kind… I am always amazed at the transformative process of doing Kamana journals on the hazards of our world. As the actual risks are clarified, I begin to lose some of my fear and my fascination is continually piqued.

Yellow jackets offer a great opportunity for us to practice our awareness skills, as well as a chance to delve into the mysterious and seemingly creepy world of the insect. What is your relationship to yellow jackets? What kind of personal experiences do you have with them? And what else can you learn about these curious creatures?

Much gratitude to:

Dan Corcoran

Adult Program Director
Wilderness Awareness School


and Kat Koch


Kat Koch is an Instructor with our Kamana Naturalist Training Program. When not running amuck in the woods you might see Kat dancing Lindy Hop or Salsa, singing and playing various instruments, making bow drill fires or teaching yoga.

for permission to reprint this article.


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