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Stinging insects take up residence

(ran PW PS editions of PASCO TIMES)

Large yellow jacket nests are discovered and the insects destroyed in Largo and East Lake this week.

About two weeks ago, Joel Blumberg's neighbor noticed something unusual growing out of the flower bed next to Blumberg's tennis court.

Grayish-brown matter with spirals emerging from the top was peeking through the bushes. The mysterious lumpy formation turned out to be a large yellow jacket nest _ one of several recently discovered in North Pinellas.

"It's incredible what these little dudes have done," Blumberg said.

The Largo nest, which contains hundreds and perhaps thousands of the stinging insects, is being removed and preserved by a local pest control company.

The insects' nests are usually rebuilt annually, said Michael Burgett, a professor of entomology at Oregon State University, who has been teaching about the insects for the past 30 years. The insects, which are also known as paper wasps, build their nests or "cartons" out of strips of wood.

"Most yellow jackets visit dead wood or fence posts . . . and plane off with their jaws thin slivers of wood and mix this with their saliva," Burgett said. "We make paper the same way they do, except we don't use our saliva."

He said yellow jacket venom tends to be a little more toxic to humans than bee venom and that unlike a bee, a single yellow jacket can inflict multiple stings.

Though the nest in Blumberg's yard is built up from the ground and probably goes underground, yellow jackets also build hanging nests _ the kind that Marshall Klontz discovered last week near a pasture at a horse farm bordering the Brooker Creek Preserve in East Lake.

Klontz found the two nests by accident while watching an eight-point buck, a frequent visitor to Rovan Farms, walk near the north pasture.

When he took his eyes off the buck, he spotted two bulbous masses hanging 40 or 50 feet off the ground in a thin pine tree.

He could see black dots circling the masses and thought at first they were honeybees. Later he discovered they were yellow jackets and he found four other, smaller nests they had built nearby.

Tuesday, as he stood in the hot pasture with sweat beading on his forehead, Klontz decided the nests had to go.

He easily destroyed the four nests, suffering only one sting on his thumb. But getting rid of the big nests, the largest of which he estimated was 5 feet tall and 10 feet around, required more preparation.

"Well, I'd better put some clothes on," said Klontz, 40.

He came back wearing his amateur beekeeping outfit: three sweat shirts over a regular shirt, three pairs of sweat pants over regular pants, a straw hat, gloves and a scuba mask.

"More than one use for a diving mask," he said, his nose pinched in the mask, his voice nasal.

He entered the woods carrying a chain saw, started it up and began cutting. Within 40 seconds there was a loud crack and the pine tree that contained the nests fell _ right on the pasture fence, breaking through it and hitting the ground.

Klontz emerged from the woods with two thumbs up as a cloud of yellow jackets appeared above the crushed nest. Klontz grabbed two cans of Raid from his pickup truck and began spraying.

The cloud of wasps dispersed, but did not go far. The cans empty, Klontz returned to the truck and got two more.

"I think it's time to go back to the store," he said. "There's millions in there. I have to get more cans."

The Largo nest was removed professionally. On Monday night, a two-man crew of Truly Nolen Pest Control workers donned thick suits with masks to place a plastic and PVC-pipe apparatus over the nest. Then they injected insecticide dust into the makeshift tent.

"They ingest this dust as they groom their antennae," Truly Nolen manager Joe East said. The dust dehydrates the insects, and the heat from being trapped inside the plastic will add some discomfort as well.

At Blumberg's home, workers from Truly Nolen will check on the nest, which East called medium in size, to see whether the insects are dying. They will remove the plastic tent after a few days and dig the nest out of the ground.

Burgett said yellow jackets eat just about anything. For their daily activity, they get carbohydrates by drinking nectar from flowers. But to feed their young, they eat other insects to provide protein.

"They're very beneficial in the ecological scheme of things because they eat other insects which we consider pests," Burgett said.

Burgett said once a colony is disturbed, about 10 percent of the insects go into a defensive mode, preparing to attack. He said very young and very old people are at most risk because they can't get away from the nest quickly enough to escape the insects' wrath.

As far as killing yellow jackets, Burgett said applying store-bought wasp killer according to the package instructions will usually take care of the problem, but others still choose to call in a pest control expert.

"It depends on your level of courage."

Yellow jackets

Yellow jackets are heavy-bodied wasps that are black with yellow or white markings and have venomous stings. They:

become more numerous and aggressive late in the summer and should be avoided.

are attracted by meat or sweet foods.

build nests resembling paper in the ground, in timber or in walls.

fiercely defend their nests, which are dominated by an egg-laying queen.

Source: Oregon State University Extension Service