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Invasion of the yellow jackets.

The barbecue is going great; Uncle Fred gets the coals going on the first try. And then--oh, no!--dozens of yellow-and-black insects swarm in out of nowhere, scuttling all over the food, falling into the drinks, buzzing peevishly about people's heads. Next thing you know, you and three friends have been stung. Big red welts start forming on your body. What a disaster!

Sound familiar? You hear it more and more now. America's picnics are being overrun by European yellow jackets.

These insects--a species of wasp--first landed here about 40 years ago. They didn't fly across the Atlantic. More likely, they traveled as accidental stowaways on a plane. Now they're everywhere. Hey, thanks a lot, Europe! We send you McDonald's, Air Jordans, and Mickey Mouse. You send us stinging insects.

It's not as if we don't have our own yellow jacket species, says Roger Morse, an entomologist at Cornell University. But our yellow jackets usually turn up their little mandibles at picnic munchies, preferring to dine on proper wasp food: other insects. Compared to their finicky American cousins, European yellow jackets are real hogs. "This particular animal likes all the things we like," says Morse. "Soda pop, hamburgers, hot dogs, ketchup." So much for the discriminating European palate.

This "Sure, I'll eat it!" behavior is why the European yellow jacket has found the good life in America. Creatures that eat a wide variety of foods are likely to adapt quickly to a new environment. Think about it: If European yellow jackets ate only French crepes or German knockwurst, how long would they last over here?

And since they're happy to mooch off humans, such adaptable critters are also likely to live where we do--in other words, to become pests. Rats, mice, and cockroaches, by the way, are all imported pests.

What makes yellow jackets so pesky, of course, is their sting. Unlike honeybees, yellow jackets can sting again and again. The reason: wasps keep their stingers after they nail you; bees leave their stingers behind (along with a few of their vital organs, which is why honeybees don't live long once they've stung you).

Yellow jackets don't go out of their way to sting you, says Morse. They're not "bad." They're just misunderstood. "If you and one of them happens to be drinking out of the same soda can," Morse explains, and you accidentally wash one into your mouth, "the animal feels threatened."

You'll feel threatened if you're stung; a yellow jacket nip can swell your arm up to the elbow. So what's the best way to make sure that the wasps don't turn your summer into a bummer? Respect their fashion sense: "Wear light-colored, smooth cotton, or khaki clothing," says Morse. Rough, dark clothing--especially wool and leather--seems to irritate these insects.

Another tip: Since the wasps nest where there's food, help keep picnic areas litter-free. And if you are pestered by a yellow jacket, follow Morse's advice: "Get out of the area as fast as you can!"
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Title Annotation:European yellow jacket wasps
Author:Pope, Greg
Publication:Science World
Date:May 7, 1993
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