Laurel and I consider that we’ve well-earned our self-appointed status of Yellow Jacket Hidey-Hole Special Forces Killers (plagiarized motto: “Death from Above”). The recent Oregonian article on these insect evil-doers lacked specifics as to how you send them to yellow jacket hell if you locate a ground nest. This article, “How to Kill Yellow Jackets,” is pretty good but doesn’t mention some of the battle-tested tips I’m about to share.
[Update, August 2006: My wife has asked me to point out that yellow jackets aren't all evil. They are part of the balance of nature and do quite a bit of good. So if they aren't causing trouble, the best thing to do is leave them alone. Also, know the difference between bees, wasps, and yellow jackets. Bees rarely are aggressive and are very beneficial.]
On our five south Salem acres, and on the common property that surrounds Spring Lake, Laurel and the family dog, Serena, frequently encounter yellow jacket nests. I usually don’t, because I’m more of a believer in contacting physical reality through the screen of my laptop rather than through the quaint old-fashioned way that Laurel favors: going outside in the fresh air and walking around.
Yellow jackets live in holes in the ground. Sometimes the opening is almost as small as a pencil’s diameter; sometimes they take over another animal’s burrow, so the opening looks like a gopher hole (as it might have been at one time). If you see them flying in and out of the hole during the daytime, for heaven’s sake, and your own, don’t get too close to it. Yellow jackets are territorial and will aggressively defend the nest.
We've found that there seems to be a one-line "landing path" into the hole. If you identify that path, consider whether you can mark the location and remember to avoid the area. Our experience is that if you stay at least three or four feet away from the hole, yellow jackets generally won't attack. We've learned to let holes alone if they aren't near where we have to walk.
But if you have to destroy the nest, also mark the location—either in your mind, if you’re sure you can come back to the hole, or with some object that you toss in the general vicinity of the hole, but not right on it, so you can use that landmark to navigate back to the lair when night falls. As you wait for the coolness of darkness, when most yellow jackets get sluggish (a good thing…for killing them!) and return to the nest, procure a can of yellow-jacket spray from your favorite garden center.
The author of the above-linked article says that since yellow jackets are a type of wasp, wasp and hornet spray is fine to use. Maybe. But we’ve found that cans marked only “Kills wasps and hornets” use a foamy insecticide because the nests are outside. The can’s nozzle thus is designed to spray in a fairly wide arc. But a yellow jacket hole demands a narrow spray, especially if you want to stand tall a few feet away from the hole, as we like to do for obvious reasons. So try to buy a can that specifically says it kills yellow jackets.
After dark (we wait until 11 pm or so, but we usually stay up late), put on your killing clothes. If this is a team effort--two people make a more efficient death squad—the Sprayer should at least wear long pants and shoes with socks. The Flashlight Holder/Dirt Tosser, who happens to be me, can be less protectively attired if he/she is feeling brave. More clothes is better. But since we’ve never had yellow jackets come out of a hole after being sprayed, over time we’ve gotten more casual about our protective gear (we used to wear nets over our heads, like bee keepers, and long-sleeved jackets—the whole nine yards; now I go out to do my killing in shorts and sandals).
We take with us the yellow jacket spray, flashlights, and a plastic bucket full of loose dirt. Stealthily we walk through the night to the battlefield, not saying a word. Our silence has nothing to with yellow jacket killing strategy; somehow it just seems more Rambo-Special-Forcesish. If you want to rub camouflage paint all over your face and arms, that would be cool too, especially if you don’t have nosey neighbors.
Laurel, since she’s wearing the pants, creeps up toward the hole. Shining her flashlight on the opening, usually we see a lone yellow jacket guard perched on the edge. If this happens to you, don’t panic. Our experience is that the guard is lethargic and won’t move if you stay a few feet away. Plus, he/she is going to get taken out real fast with the first shot of spray.
I point my flashlight at the hole, holding the bucket of dirt in my other hand. Laurel uncaps the spray and edges a bit closer. Then we strike! Fast. Hard. No mercy. The guard is knocked aside; the spray starts to fill up the hole. Usually it just keeps on going down the hole, because these nests are quite large. We generally use up about half a can of spray. As soon as Laurel stops spraying, I throw the dirt over the hole and tamp it down with my sandal-clad foot in what I like to consider a reckless act of courageous abandon.
Laurel likes to listen for signs of yellow jacket death throes (angry buzzing sometimes is heard). However, after my single act of courageous abandon I like to walk really fast away from the hole, imagining that maybe there is a back door and all the yellow jackets are about to go buzzing after us. This has never happened and probably never will. But it’s no fun to be stung, so caution is advised in all matters concerning yellow jackets.
And there you have it, our killing strategy. It works for us. Stay away from “natural” yellow jacket sprays. Laurel’s environmental enthusiasm led her to use this stuff several times, but upon returning to the nest we found that the yellow jackets had dug their way out and (obviously) hadn’t been killed. Being vegetarians, we don’t like to kill other forms of life. But if you need to kill something—and yellow jackets do need to be killed if a nest is close to where you live or walk—then it makes sense to do your killing as effectively as possible.