Manitoba

Bugged by wasps? Swarms normal this time of year as insects rely more on our food

That black-and-yellow nuisance buzzing around your backyard, in the park and the around the patios isn't out to get you — it just wants to share, before it dies.

Their natural food sources are nearly gone so they're scavenging, city says

Yellow jacket wasps love to share our sugar these days, as their other sources of supply — flower nectar, tree — are running out. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

That black-and-yellow nuisance buzzing around your backyard, in the park and the around the patios isn't out to get you — it just wants to share, before it dies.

Winnipeggers, like people in many urban centres around the country, are moving from summer into wasp season. It's that time of year when a drink, neglected for 30 seconds, becomes a cocktail for yellow jackets or a plate of fruit becomes unwanted party platter.

"At this time of the year, their natural food sources are gone and so they're really scavenging," said Ken Nawolsky, superintendent of insect control for the City of Winnipeg.

"So anytime they detect food — and typically they're pretty smart, they know humans have food — they will try and go after it. Consequently they tend to gather around people and so that's why they're very visible right now. They can be quite aggressive."

During the earlier part of the summer, the wasps are feeding on flower nectar, tree sap and other items rich in sugars. So you will occasionally see one try to sip your soda but for the most part, they've got a lot of other options.

Not so now.

Without those other choices, the numbers of wasps forcing their way into our food has soared. But the numbers are no higher than usual, said Nawolsky.

The city doesn't have traps to calculate the wasp population, like they do with mosquitoes, but uses anecdotal information to make its estimates instead.

"We've been looking at our data over the past three weeks, in terms of the number of inquiries we've had related to wasps, and they're kind of on par with our most years," said Nawolsky.

Wasps are most active in warm weather, so wait a few weeks and they'll be done, says Ken Nawolsky, superintendent of insect control for the City of Winnipeg. (Frank Rumpenhorst/AFP/Getty Images)

However, Taz Stuart, entomologist and director of technical operations at Poulin's Pest Control in Winnipeg, said the numbers are higher than last year when they were abnormally low.

"So we're seeing a resurgence and on par with 2017," he said.

The city's data, Nawolsky explained, is the number of people asking advice on how to deal with the problem, or the city being called to remove nests from public property where there is a potential danger, for example on playgrounds or inside bus shelters.

Some people will hang up fake wasp nests to deter the insects from building a real one — wasps are territorial and avoid constructing their homes near other nests. But that won't work to drive them away at this time of year, Nawolsky said.

That's because they're no longer looking to build, they're just scavenging and feeding the late-season larvae before the colder weather kills them all off.

"What we recommend to people if they're having a function or something like that in their yard is to take a two-litre bottle and cut it in half. Then invert the top and put it inside with some sugary water," he said.

"The wasps will be naturally attracted to it and fall within the hole."

They'll be unable to climb out on the slippery plastic and stay trapped or drown.

Or you can just lean on your patience and stick it out, because the swarms won't last long.

"Rest assured in about three weeks their natural life cycle will be coming to an end," Nawolsky said.

That's the one good thing about the cold Prairie winters, said Stuart.

"It removes wasps and mosquitoes, so it's a win-win," he said.

Until then, if you're having drinks and trying to take advantage of the last few warm days of summer, just take some  precautions.

"Make sure you have things covered so that the wasps don't go in there and you don't get stung," Nawolsky said, "Whatever you do, don't try to swat them because then they become more aggressive." 

While all of the worker wasps will perish in the cold, the queen will find a warm place during the winter, like an underground garage or animal burrow, where temperatures stay above freezing.

She'll re-emerge from her dormancy in the spring, lay eggs and restart the whole colony, Nawolsky said.

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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