Don't Get Stung! How to Handle Wasps, Hornets and Bees in and Around the Home
Insects often like to live around humans because humans provide food, shelter, water, and protection from predators. Humans can also be a threat to insects in the form of swatting, extermination, or taking down nests. Homeowners tend to not want bees, wasps, or hornets building homes around theirs. Although stinging is a primary concern, there is also the potential for property damage.
It is unsurprising that homeowners want to avoid stinging insects on their property. People who are allergic to stinging insects—bees in particular—may be at serious risk from an infestation near their home, as that reaction can be fatal in some cases. Otherwise, the stings are more of a nuisance, but one that is more likely to happen to people who do not know what to look for or how to avoid them.
The best solution to handle stinging insects is not to start spraying vast quantities of pesticide and hope for the best, as this can prompt a massive swarm of the insects in protection of the nest or hive and is harmful to beneficial bee species. Instead, homeowners should understand the differences between wasps, hornets, and bees as well as what attracts them to go to or live on the property. This will make it easier to devise the right approaches for prevention or removal, if necessary. In all cases, people should take care, as these insects can cause significant harm during the removal process.
Table of Contents
- Nest Removal Precautions
- Identifying Wasps and Hornets
- What Attracts Wasps and Hornets?
- How to Prevent Wasps and Hornets from Building Nests In or Around Homes
- Tips to Avoid Being Stung
- When to Call a Professional
- Helpful Resources
Nest Removal Precautions
Removing a nest often requires a professional trained in extermination or removal. Homeowners who want to do it themselves or who do not have a professional available may be able to do it successfully with careful planning and several advance precautions. Dressing in thick layers of tight clothing and planning to conduct treatments and removal at night are key to a safe removal.
Before people take any action to mitigate the threat, they should evaluate the nest and understand their risks. Wasps and hornets have smooth stingers, meaning they can sting repeatedly without dying, unlike bees. Additionally, wasps and hornets may be more aggressive and likely to sting unprovoked. As a result, someone trying to remove one of these nests may be at greater risk than they would trying to remove another insect infestation.
The best time to conduct nest removal is after sunset for a couple of reasons. First, these insects spend the day gathering food to bring back to the nest. People who are trying to wipe out the colony are more likely to be successful once the vast majority of colony members have returned. Second, these insects generally do not have very good vision. They do not need to hunt for food at night, and many of their predators are nocturnal. Homeowners who are trying to remove a nest in the dark will be harder to pinpoint as a target to sting.
As a general rule, people should assume that a nest is occupied, even if it seems empty. It is also often true that the visible aspect of the nest is only a small part of the total. Insects that build in a colony may have hundreds of insects, which means that a nest could be up to two feet tall.
Removing a nest can be extremely complicated and difficult, depending on the treatment used. Homeowners must be able to sedate or otherwise kill the insects before they knock down the nest. Because many insecticides are also toxic to humans, people must use proper ventilation gear to avoid injuring themselves or others.
Burning the nest or spraying it with water is much more likely to prompt an attack than destroy the nest, in addition to possible property damage. Insects in a colony will move and attack extremely quickly if alerted. As such, poisons should paralyze or kill them on immediate contact. Even a dying wasp can release pheromones guiding hundreds of others to the site. If people are able to successfully bag the nest, they may be able to apply the treatment inside and then dispose of the nest.
Identifying Wasps and Hornets
Just as there are for bees, there are multiple types of wasps and hornets. In fact, many unique species of these insects have several subspecies. This can make identifying them more difficult, and usually depends on the region. Homeowners can typically distinguish a wasp or hornet based on the insect's:
- Body shape
- Nest presence or location
Before developing a removal strategy, people should figure out which type they are dealing with. A type that lives alone presents different obstacles than one that nests with thousands of others. Some species can be more dangerous or risky to remove than others.
Yellow jackets are a kind of wasp that are easy to define by the presence of a bright yellow and black body. They may have other colors, but the most common type of yellow jacket looks somewhat like a bee, although they are slightly larger. These wasps tend to build nests in elevated places such as:
- Empty barns or open sheds
Only a small part of the nest may be visible, and the nest itself could be as large as a basketball. Homeowners should be wary when they notice the tiny paper tubes indicating a yellow jacket nest located on or near their home.
Yellow jackets are also riskier to humans due to their behavior. These wasps hunt for food like raw meat or sweetened drinks, depending on the season. If they feel threatened, they may bite or sting repeatedly. Yellow jackets will also bite, sting, or eat other insects. However, their preference for the ease of human food puts them into frequent contact. They commonly nest near humans, which means they can pose a significant threat. Homeowners should take great care when considering how best to remove the nest.
Bald-faced hornets are a type of yellow jacket that look and act somewhat differently. For example, the body size is larger and usually darker in color. The name comes from the pale color on the face. These wasps also have yellow and black stripes near the stinger. Unlike other varieties of yellow jackets, bald-faced hornets are less likely to nest near humans, as they prefer to build their nests in trees. The queen is the only one to survive from one year to the next, and she builds a new nest every year. Positioning a nest inside a tree’s canopy or deep inside a bush may make it harder to locate. Homeowners should confirm that a nest is empty before assuming it is safe to remove.
Bald-faced hornets typically prefer to sting live prey instead of feeding off human food waste, although they will on occasion. Because they are known to eat flies and other insects that thrive around humans, bald-faced hornets do have some benefits to humans. However, like yellow jackets, bald-faced hornet nests can be similarly tricky to remove. They will attack if provoked and are known to sting human faces in particular.
Mud daubers, sometimes referred to as dirt daubers, live and behave differently from other wasps and hornets. Usually leading a solitary lifestyle, people are unlikely to find more than one or two mud daubers at a time. The nests are very small, usually just a single tube made of mud located in eaves, garages, or attics. Homeowners may locate more than one nest in a close location, but this does not indicate the presence of a colony. The average nest typically contains a female adult and young.
These wasps are larger than yellow jackets and bees by as long as an inch. The body is either dark brown or a bluish-black. They are known for a narrow body part in the center separating the head and thorax from the rest of the body. Female mud daubers catch spiders to feed to their young. Mud daubers do not keep their nests once the young have left, but other invasive species may take over the nest, meaning that even though mud daubers are less likely to sting humans, homeowners should still take care when removing their nests.
Unlike other types of wasps and hornets, cicada killers prefer to build nests in the ground. As the name indicates, these wasps feed almost exclusively on cicadas; therefore, cicada killers prefer to build nests on the edges of forests and gardens where cicadas are plentiful. The nests are made of dirt and tend to be fairly small, large enough for some eggs and a few cicadas to feed each larva as it grows. While cicada killers do not build colonies, they thrive in places where they can build nests and find food easily.
The risk posed by cicada killers is also different for humans. These wasps look like a large yellow jacket, with the females as much as twice the size. They will sting if they are threatened, but they typically will not go out of their way to attack. Only females have stingers as a form of protection. For the most part, cicada killers are risky in the way that they can do damage to landscaping. In many cases, the best way homeowners can manage cicada killers is by controlling the cicada population on their properties.
What Attracts Wasps and Hornets?
Wasps and hornets want many things that humans want, which is why they tend to build nests in or near houses. These insects need a warm, dry place to live. They tend to build nests up high, in places where humans may be nearby but not regularly present. Placing nests in the rafters of an attic or the eaves of a roof make it harder for insect-eating rodents to get to them while also keeping them away from under human feet. This makes it easier for the nest to survive long enough for the next generation of insects to reach maturity, which is often about a year.
Hornets and wasps also need a steady source of food, which varies depending on the time of year. Most of these insects feed on a variety of sources, including meat in the form of other insects. Like ants or cockroaches, hornets and wasps scavenge on the food that humans leave behind — especially if it is left outside. Specifically, these insects feast on meat in the early part of the season. As the summer wanes, they are more likely to prefer carbohydrates, usually in the form of liquid, sugar-sweetened drinks. Fragrant flowers can also bring them to the yard to search for food.
Because insects do not tolerate cold temperatures very well, finding a place that will survive colder temperatures is key for wasps and hornets in winter. They usually achieve this by locating holes or gaps in housing or trees, with room to build a larger nest inside. Not all of the insects will survive until the following year. In many cases, it is just the larvae or the queen that will make it, burrowed deep inside the nest for insulation and protection.
How to Prevent Wasps and Hornets from Building Nests In or Around Homes
Obviously, homeowners cannot avoid having homes as an insect-prevention device. However, they can control the other aspects of the structure or the property that may attract wasps or hornets to build a nest. The first step is to commit to preventing food items from being accessible. This means:
- Cleaning up after outdoor picnics or barbecues
- Promptly throwing away garbage in tightly closed bags
- Keeping bins inside the garage or another building except on trash day
People may not be able to completely control the number of insects on the property, but they can manage it to a higher degree. Most insects want easy access to food, shelter, and most importantly, water. Reducing standing water and controlling waste will make the property less hospitable to the insects on which wasps and hornets feed.
Otherwise, the last step is to seal gaps in the home's exterior that may allow hornets or wasps to build a nest. These areas include attics, soffits, eaves, rafters, and gutters. Cleaning the gutters regularly helps to ensure that roof debris does not hide a nest or provide a warm, soft place to nest.
How to Keep Wasps and Hornets Away from Outdoor Decks
An outdoor deck gives hornets and wasps an entirely new place to consider building a home. Because decks are not built directly on the ground, there is a quiet, sheltered area where wasps and hornets can make a nest. Food that may fall through the deck boards provides a steady place to feed and bring food back for young without risk of attack. This poses a greater risk to humans because the nest is much closer to body level. A nest underneath a deck is also more likely to be disrupted by walking feet, prompting an unexpected attack.
Keeping these insects away from the deck takes a similar approach as it would for other parts of the house. Homeowners should avoid leaving food on the deck even for a short period of time, because the scent of the food is what draws wasps. Cleaning up food, removing standing water, and minimizing drinks left at a table will reduce hornets and wasps. Using a red-tinted flashlight and protective clothing, people can inspect for wasps at night with care. If there are no visible nests, then sealing gaps can help prevent future ones.
Homeowners who have existing wasp or hornet nests may need a different solution to manage it, but people who want to prevent the nests in the first place have a variety of natural options. Homeowners may be unwilling or unable to use noxious insecticides, which are typically more effective but can have harmful side effects to humans, pets, and beneficial insects. These options have proven success as repellents, which means they can make an area uncomfortable or impractical for these insects to look for food or build a home.
Clove-Geranium-Lemongrass Oil Blend
Certain plants have a strong scent that many insects do not like. In particular, essential oils in a mix of lemongrass, clove and geranium distracts insects. They cannot find food when they keep smelling these odors, so they leave the space. These oils blended together seem to be most effective for a longer period of time. Because essential oils are potent and can also be fairly expensive, homeowners should put a few drops of each along with a small amount of dish soap and water into a spray bottle. Spraying this on the eaves of the house will help to prevent new nests from forming.
Plain Soap and Water
Soap and water can be a potent combination, although people should take care in applying it. Putting a couple of tablespoons of dish soap in a full bottle of water makes an easy spray. When applied to a small nest with open cells, this combination renders the insects unable to breathe and they die quickly. Homeowners should not spray a large nest — especially not during the day. Spraying the nest can alert wasps and hornets to an attack. If they are not killed immediately, they may sting several times. In most cases, it may be safer to have the nest removed and rely on other preventive measures.
Similar to other oils, peppermint is useful in making wasps and hornets want to spend their time somewhere else. Because their vision is not nearly as good, these insects rely mostly on their sense of smell. Some scents like peppermint are sufficiently strong that they overwhelm the insect’s scent sensors. In the presence of oil, wasps and hornets cannot find food, other members of their colony, or even their nest. Adding this oil with water to a few cotton balls and placed on the home's exterior serves as a reasonable deterrent. Because it is a repellent and not an insecticide, people should not spray it on the insects or a nest.
Wasp traps work by drawing in the wasp and making it impossible for them to escape. The way a wasp trap operates depends on the type of trap. For example, homeowners can buy a simple plastic trap at a home improvement store. These traps lure the wasps in but make it impossible to fly away. Additionally, people can make a trap using water, sugar, vinegar, and soap. Entering the water prevents the wasp from getting out and it drowns. These types of traps may need to be changed out daily to remove the dead wasps and provide new bait.
The use of plants in repelling these insects can also be effective in their whole form. Spraying soap or oils may not make sense, especially if homeowners have to do it every day to keep wasps and hornets from settling in a home. Similar to the practicality of oils, people should choose varieties that will thrive in their gardens and also have a strong scent. Common contenders include:
- Wormwood bushes
Much like the oils, the plants in mature form release scents in the air that can distract insects. The use of these and other herbs like basil, garlic, or pennyroyal act as a functional repellent for insects that wasps and hornets eat as well as the stinging insects. Because these are not essential oils, however, they may not be quite as strong or effective as a preventative. Homeowners may have to plant quite a lot of them, surrounding the house or outdoor living spaces, to see a positive effect. Ultimately, this may be a worthy path primarily as an additional support for another, more concentrated prevention or extermination strategy.
Bees may not require the same kind of prevention or infestation management approach as wasps or hornets, and homeowners should take care to understand the differences between them. As highly beneficial insects, bees are responsible for pollination of the vast majority of the world’s food. Exterminating bee colonies is often unnecessary, but also poses long-term effects to the local environment and the world as a whole. Unfortunately, a dramatic increase in the use of pesticides, commercially and at home, has led to a significant decrease in bee populations across the United States.
This does not mean that homeowners have to tolerate an uncontrolled bee colony in their yards. Beekeeping is a popular hobby, but people need to be safe outside their homes. Managing a bee colony on someone’s property usually includes a safe removal of the hive in a way that keeps most of the bees alive. Otherwise, homeowners can use different strategies to guide the bees toward beneficial plants in the garden, away from their homes and outdoor living spaces. Attention to the landscaping layout can minimize the likelihood of stings without putting the bees at risk.
Choose the Right Flowers and Plants in Your Garden
Unlike wasps and hornets, most plants will not serve as a repellent to bees. Bees prefer flowers and other plants that offer nectar and pollen, but they are not easily pushed away by strong-smelling herbs. As such, homeowners should aim to create an environment that encourages the bees to go in one direction, instead of trying to push them away from another one. Above all, people with a lot of bees in their yard should be careful how much pesticide they use. Even if they are trying to kill another insect, they may accidentally kill the bees as well.
Bees rely on their vision to find flowers that offer a lot of pollen and nectar, and they are attracted to particular colors. Plants that are native to the area grow better without pesticides, and they also are more likely to draw in native bees. Beneficial plants may include:
- Creosote bush
- Purple coneflower
Flowers planted in mounds or clumps have a better chance of enticing bees. Plants with flowers that are shades of purple or white are easiest for bees to find. In areas where homeowners do not want bees, they should avoid planting flowers.
Safe Bee Hive Removal
Although bees may not present the same kind of risk to homeowners as wasps or hornets, removing a hive may still be a job for a professional. In this case, people should call a local beekeeper or other expert in wildlife preservation. Exterminators may have experience in hive removal without killing bees, but homeowners should check in advance.
DIY hive removal is possible, but also risky. Like wasps, bees will attack as a group if they sense that someone is trying to move or destroy the hive. They also build hives in the walls of a home, garage or shed, and only part of the hive may be exposed. In these instances, homeowners may put themselves at risk for injury or property damage trying to get the hive out. If the hive is outside and mostly complete, people can assemble a variety of tools to help. These include:
- A full beekeeping suit, which covers the face and leaves no opening for bees to climb inside
- Bee vacuum to collect the swarm
- Peppermint soap and water to destroy the hive
A bee vacuum works much like a regular vacuum with a bag: the machine creates suction to pull the bees inside. Homeowners can direct it near the swarm and run the machine until all the bees are trapped inside the container. At this point, the homeowner can take the bees to a local beekeeper for relocation to a new hive.
After the bees are gone, it is important to apply a solution of peppermint soap and water to destroy the hive, as this will break down the hive and exterminates the larvae inside. Homeowners may also use ficam dust as a pesticide for bees living inside the home exterior, but this option is best left to a professional.
Tips to Avoid Being Stung
The best way to avoid being stung is to minimize the things that attract stinging insects and practice behaviors that keep insects at ease. It is worth keeping in mind that swatting at a wasp or hornet is much more likely to draw dozens—or even hundreds—of them at once. People should remember that insects will usually do them no harm if left alone, and acting like a threat may trigger insects to respond.
The type of clothing people should wear is a subject for minor debate among experts. Some argue that wearing red is a good way to avoid wasps and hornets. Their vision does not allow them to see the color red, which means it might be harder to find a person to sting if they are wearing red. Others say that wearing bright colors or floral prints can attract insects looking for flowers or plants as a source of food. Whatever clothing people choose, they may want to aim for items that provide adequate cover for the limbs and hug the arms or legs at the cuff. This helps to avoid having insects fly inside and sting as they try to escape.
Otherwise, homeowners can minimize creating the scents that draw bees, wasps, and hornets. This means:
- Cleaning up after food eaten outdoors
- Keeping garbage cans closed tightly with trash bags
- Avoiding wearing perfumes or cologne with strong or sweet scents
- Clean out vehicles and drive them regularly to avoid creating a new home and food source
If people watch where they walk, they can also avoid the bees and wasps that nest on or near the ground. Stepping on insects with bare feet is another common source of stings.
What to Do If You Get Stung
Bee stings are an unpleasant experience that people may have to go through multiple times throughout life. If they are not allergic, it may simply mean a few days of minor discomfort as the venom recedes. Most people are not allergic to stinging insects, and most people who do have an allergy are not in serious danger. However, bee stings can be deadly to people who are allergic. As such, it is important to know what to do in either instance to avoid making the situation worse.
Treatment If You're Not Allergic
For a bee sting on a person who is not allergic, remove the stinger safely and thoroughly to reduce contact with venom. Wasps and hornets do not lose their stinger, so this step is irrelevant for those stings. People should use a stiff, thin item like a fingernail or piece of plastic to wipe the stinger away from the body. Pulling it out or squeezing can release more venom, which increases the swelling. The area should be kept clean with soap and water. People can use an over-the-counter antihistamine or anti-inflammatory to deal with swelling and itching.
Treatment If You Are Allergic
If people are allergic to bee stings, they should be prepared to take prompt action. Several allergies to bee venom often require the use of epinephrine shots quickly after the stinging event. This shot can reduce swelling and shorten the allergic reaction that can create:
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the face or throat
People who do not have the most serious allergies may not have a prescription for epinephrine to carry around at all times. In this case, they should pay close attention to the sting and seek emergency treatment if needed, as allergic reactions can often get worse with increased exposure.
When to Call a Professional
The best approach for pest abatement or prevention depends on the insect in question. In many cases, homeowners are better off calling a professional to handle a current infestation. This is not only true for people who react strongly to stings or are particularly allergic to bee venom. Removing a nest or hive is tricky under the best circumstances, and people may put themselves and their family members at serious risk if they do not take sufficient care. A professional has the skills to determine the extent of the infestation, the likely causes or triggers, and the best ways to prevent a nest or hive from happening on the property again.
Removing an infestation requires an understanding of the type of insect involved, the number of nests, the location and how difficult it is to get it out. Because most wasp or hornet nests on residential properties are built into the home structure or an outbuilding, it is likely that at least part of the nest is inside an exterior wall. This can make removal dangerous or more expensive if people want to avoid damage to the wall.
Hiring a professional to provide a consultation can help homeowners determine what they should do about the problem as well as how much it will cost to have the professional handle it. Because wasps and hornets have different requirements than bees, people should make sure to call the right professional for scheduling a service to ensure an ideal and safe result overall.