Vespula maculifrons

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Geographic Range

Found throughout Eastern North America

Habitat

The Eastern Yellow jacket is a subterranean species, meaning it builds its nest below the ground. It is a generalist species, and so can live happily in urban, suburban, and agricultural areas. (Duncan, 1939; Evans, 1963; Ross and Matthews, 1991)

Physical Description

The Eastern Yellow jacket ranges in size from 1.25-1.8 cm long, depending on its caste (queen, worker, male). Perhaps the most distinguishing features on the Eastern Yellow jacket are the black and yellow stripes that accent the abdomen. The patterns on the abdomen are also determined by caste. Vespula maculifrons workers are typically 1.25 cm in length and have abdominal markings that consist of thick black bands with a sliver of yellow between each band. The male yellow jacket is the same size, but he has a slightly different pattern of black and yellow than the worker. Males have one thick black band at the region closest to the thorax and as the band progresses towards the anus, the black bands decrease in thickness while the yellow bands increase in thickness. The queen Eastern Yellow jacket is slightly larger than the male and worker at 1.8 cm. The queen's markings consist of a large flared black band at the anterior region of the abdomen followed by thinner bands of black that progresses to the posterior end of the abdomen. In between the black bands are two dots that, if the point of the flare were extended towards the anus, would be located on either side of the imaginary line.

Female Eastern Yellow jackets have a stinger located on the posterior end of the abdomen (gaster). The yellow jacket is able to sting its victims repeatedly, however the stinger is slightly barbed and has a tendency to become stuck in the victim.

The yellow jacket also has well-developed mouthparts that are specially designed to capture and chew prey (such as many kinds of caterpillars). Along with strong jaws the yellow jacket has a highly developed tongue for sucking nectar and fruit juices from the plants. (Grissell, May 1999; Lyon, 1997; Ross and Matthews, 1991)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range length
    1.25 to 1.8 cm
    0.49 to 0.71 in

Development

Yellow jackets hatch from the egg as small, white, grub-like larvae. As they grow they feed on paste made from masticated insects that workers feed them. Once they have grown large enough they pupate. During this time they undergo a complete metamorphosis and emerge in their mature adult form.

The larval stage for the queen lasts about 12-18 days, while the larval stage of workers and males is slightly less. (Duncan, 1939; Ross and Matthews, 1991)

Reproduction

In fall, males and young queens mate with one another. Shortly after copulation, males die while queens find a safe place to overwinter. The queen is the only reproducing member of the colony.

New colonies of the Eastern yellow jacket are founded in the spring by a single fertilized queen. The queen begins her task of laying eggs by first building a small nest and then laying eggs, which will give rise to the first generation of sterile female workers. The queen will continue to lay worker eggs until about halfway through the season. At this point the queen will lay fertilized female eggs (which will be next season's queens) and unfertilized eggs (which develop into males).

The yellow jacket queen seeks out a cavity in which to build her nest soon after emerging from hibernation. The cavity she chooses is usually an old rodent burrow or a dead tree root. She and her worker daughters will expand the nest as the colony grows, depositing the discarded material about an inch from the nest opening.

Once they emerge from the pupae, the new queens leave the nest to mate. Soon after mating with the female the male yellowjacket dies and the female must seek out shelter for the winter. Yellowjacket queens sometimes end up in houses, looking for winter shelter. The new queen stays dormant throughout the winter. In the spring she emerges from hibernation and seeks out a spot to found a new colony.

Yellowjacket populations are largly determined by the weather. For instance, if there is a sudden cold snap in early April, all of the queens that emerged before then will die, decreasing the population. During a good year the number of occupants for a single colony may reach 5,000. The queen will produce about 25,000 individuals during the course of the season, which may last from late March throught the middle of fall. (Andrews, 1969; Evans, 1963; Grissell, May 1999; Ross and Matthews, 1991)

  • Breeding season
    Mating occurs in the fall.
  • Average eggs per season
    25000

Like most social Hymenoptera, the founding queen cares for the first generation of brood, while all subsequent generations are cared for entirely by workers. Workers are also responsible for feeding and caring for the queen.

Lifespan/Longevity

Worker individuals live untill the first serious frosts of winter. Males die shortly after mating, while queens live for one year; building a nest and founding a colony the summer after which they mated.

Behavior

The Eastern Yellow jacket is generally a peaceful creature but will not hesitate to attack when it feels threatened. The stinger of Vespula maculifrons is used only for defense and plays no role in capturing prey. Instead, yellow jackets use their powerful jaws (mandibles) to capture and kill prey, and may sometimes use these mandibles to bite as well as sting while defending themselves.

A normal colony of Eastern Yellow jackets holds 2,800- 5,000 individuals during the peak of the season. One interesting habit the Eastern Yellow jacket has is that once the queen begins to lay the male and female eggs, the workers start eating all the undeveloped larvae that have not yet hatched. Scientists do not understand why this is, but believe it is so all the attention and energy of the colony is focused on next season's queens.

The V. maculifrons queen is the initial constructer of the nest. First she makes a small disc from paper, followed by a hollow stalk called a pedicel, and finally she builds small larval cells onto the flat cells on the end of the pedicel. Then she builds an envelope around all of the cells, leaving only a small opening at the base. Once the initial nest is completed, the queen will lay some eggs, one in each cell, that develope into the first generation of workers.

The nest is constructed from rotten or weathered wood fibers, dead plant stem fibers, the linings of shrubs and trees, cocoon silk and various artificial fibrous materials such as paper bags and newpapers. These fibers are then mixed with saliva and chewed to a pulp. Once the pulp has been made the workers begin to build larger and larger cells. Typically, the combs are built for the second tier before the first tier has been completed.

The nest is usually kept between 29 and 32 degrees Celsius.

(Lyon 2000) (Duncan, 1939; Evans, 1963; Ross and Matthews, 1991)

Communication and Perception

Sight and smell play a key role in the ability to locate food. First, sight helps the yellow jacket recognize flowers and potential prey. Next, smell helps guide these creatures to the particular flower from which she likes to drink. Chemical signals help wasps identify nest mates from potential competitors and enemies. Chemical signals called pheromones also help wasps communicate with one another about mating, food, and danger.

(Lyon, 2000) (Duncan, 1939; Evans, 1963)

Food Habits

Adult yellow jackets feed only on nectar and fruit juices using their long tongues, while animal tissues (mostly insects and other arthropods, but occasionally carrion) are fed to larvae. Larvae jiggle around in their cells alerting nearby workers that they are hungry. A worker will then proceed to go out and capture a prey item. She then cuts the prey item into manageable pieces and carries it back to the nest piece by piece. Once the prey item is in the nest the worker masticates (chews) a piece of the prey into a paste with her mandibles. The workers then feed the larvae by tickling them. This tickling causes the larvae to secrete a liquid from their salivary glands. The worker feeds on the liquid, and while she is drinking she transfer the chewed up paste to the larvae. This process is termed malaxation. (Andrews, 1969; Duncan, 1939; Ross and Matthews, 1991)

  • Animal Foods
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit
  • nectar
  • sap or other plant fluids

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Despite what many people think, the Eastern Yellowjacket provides a valuble service to farmers and gardeners by destroying many insects that attack cultivated and ornamental plants. (Grissell, May 1999)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Eastern Yellowjackets will sting vigorously to defend themselves and their nest, so they can be a nuisance if the nest is located around people. Some people are especially allergic to the venom, and can have a very dangerous, or even fatal, reaction to being stung. These sites give suggestions on how to deal with yellowjacket nests:

(Lyon 2000) (Grissell, May 1999)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans

Conservation Status

The Eastern Yellowjacket is found abundantly and is in no danger of becoming endangered. However, there is a non-native species, the German Yellowjacket, Vespula germanica that has recently moved into North America. This species is more aggressive than native yellowjackets, and may out-compete them. It is also more of a nuisance, as it nests more frequently in man-made structures.

(Lyon 2000)

Contributors

Sara Diamond (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Heather Yoder (author), Southwestern University, Stephanie Fabritius (editor), Southwestern University.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

delayed fertilization

a substantial delay (longer than the minimum time required for sperm to travel to the egg) takes place between copulation and fertilization, used to describe female sperm storage.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

eusocial

the condition in which individuals in a group display each of the following three traits: cooperative care of young; some individuals in the group give up reproduction and specialize in care of young; overlap of at least two generations of life stages capable of contributing to colony labor

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

metamorphosis

A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nectarivore

an animal that mainly eats nectar from flowers

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

semelparous

offspring are all produced in a single group (litter, clutch, etc.), after which the parent usually dies. Semelparous organisms often only live through a single season/year (or other periodic change in conditions) but may live for many seasons. In both cases reproduction occurs as a single investment of energy in offspring, with no future chance for investment in reproduction.

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

sperm-storing

mature spermatozoa are stored by females following copulation. Male sperm storage also occurs, as sperm are retained in the male epididymes (in mammals) for a period that can, in some cases, extend over several weeks or more, but here we use the term to refer only to sperm storage by females.

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

venomous

an animal which has an organ capable of injecting a poisonous substance into a wound (for example, scorpions, jellyfish, and rattlesnakes).

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Andrews, C. 1969. The Lives of Wasps and Bees. New York, New York: American Elvevier Publishing Company.

Duncan, C. 1939. A Contribution to the Biology of North American Vespine Wasps. London, England: Oxford University Press.

Evans, H. 1963. Wasp Farm. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Grissell, E. May 1999. "Hornets and Yellowjackets" (On-line). Accessed March 21, 2000 at http://www.ifas.ufl.edu/~insect/urban/occas/hornet_yellowjacket.htm.

Lyon, W. 1997. "Yellowjacket" (On-line). Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheets. Accessed 03/21/00 at http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2075.html.

Ross, K., R. Matthews. 1991. The Social Biology of Wasps. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.