Yellow Jackets Swarming Ants

A cloud of yellow jackets gathered over the yard as a dark storm of malevolent invasion. The black and yellow wasps were at once beefy and lean from a summer of feasting and hunting. They circled together in the air; then dropped to attack. God, they were FAST! I stumbled backwards in panic. Dozens of yellow jackets swiftly assaulted, killed, and ate hundreds of ants. The massacre was over in minutes. Life and death right there in my front yard. The ebb and flow of nature I unwittingly contributed to in a reminder we humans live within nature.

The other day while clearing old wood from my yard I disturbed several colonies of what were probably red carpenter ants or possibly thatching ants. I was out at the River House, my dream home on the Upper Wenatchee River outside of the village of Plain near Leavenworth, Washington. Clearing brush was an on-going process, and I was cleaning up more debris as I regretfully had to sell the house.

There were piles of punky old timber rounds, “punky” meaning wood too rotten to burn. My lawnmower was acting up even with a new spark plug. I feared all my abusing it as a bush hog out there in the shaggy weeds and wild grass had all but killed it. As it sat there simmering in silent revolt I piled up brush, sticks, and punky rounds in a burn pile. I figured with the burn ban in effect it would be around mid-November before I could safely set it afire. Meanwhile, dozens of yellow jackets buzzed low over grass and weeds. They completely ignored me and appeared focused on hunting edible bugs.

It was the last day of August 2009. Temperatures have risen from the upper 50s into the low 80s. Wasn’t too bad. Drank plenty of water and Gatorade. Seems like every time I turn over and broke up rotten segments of logs hordes of big red and black ants charged out in all directions. Hundreds of ants! At first I jumped back, as the ants resembled in appearance thatching ants. Quickly I scanned my boots, socks, and pant legs for crawling boogies.

There was a huge colony of thatching ants over on the edge of a neighboring property where they’ve build a large mound. They eat lots of pests so are considered good for gardens, but thatchers also build big mounds, bite hard, and spray a burning acid where they bite. Unfortunate images of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of Late Cold War Britain, floated across the leaves and pine needles in my mind.

There weren’t any mounds, however, just nests in the wood, so maybe they were red carpenter ants instead. I wasn’t about to stick my bare hand in and find out, so I quickly tossed the broken wood across the yard to knock the critters lose before chunking it into the burn pile.

Even though carpenter ants are big and fierce looking, they don’t bite and burn as thatching ants. But they can be more destructive by tunneling through wood as they build their nests. Apparently they don’t eat wood, contrary to popular misconceptions, but instead tunnel through it. Such tunneling in turns seriously weakens any wooden structures. Eventually if left untreated the wood disintegrates and structures may collapse.

Ah, more of the damn things. Seems like every time I move an old timber round or section of abandoned firewood I stir up these big red and black ants. The sheer mass of them swarming is just amazing. Sheer biological mass. Animal mass. Insect mass. Upon a mass of plants and plant material. Biomass. Life on the planet. Right here right now. Swarming, moving, or growing quietly in the soil and blowing in the breeze. Life.

I threw another ant-infested chunk of old log into the burn pile. Looked like hundreds of pissed off ants from several disturbed hives were swarming over and around the burn pile. I gazed at the wind blowing the tall ponderosas for a few minutes, admiring their graceful yet robust trunks. I felt sad at what appeared to be the spread of pine beetle infestations, especially the regional explosion of natural western and mountain pine beetle populations. They eventually overwhelm and kill trees.

Global warming was considered to be the cause. As overall temperatures trended upwards between oscillations of extreme hot and cold weather, more southern pests and parasites were expected to move northwards into once-cooler regions. Even swarms of human climate refugees were expected to leave baking hot, dry areas. Nature tapped me on the shoulder as drops of sweat tickled my eyelids and burned beneath my glasses. With a shake of my head and a swab with my bandana, I glanced back to look at my small burn pile, and did a double take.

Yellow jackets were swarming over the burn pile and dive bombing ants. They hunted, pounced upon, and killed ants. Hundreds and hundreds of ants raced and darted and stumbled in all directions. The yellow jackets caught and ate them. Voraciously and as quickly as they could. It was a mad race against the clock, for the ants were running as fast as they could scurry. They weren’t even fighting back. Just trying to hide and survive. They slid between cracks in the wood or disappeared under debris. Here it was right here under my eyes as I stood spellbound: life and death, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, and fast. I watched a surprisingly large yellow jacket tackle a bison of a read and black ant. The wasp hit the ant on the ground so hard it flipped and rolled over with the ant clutched tight in a vise grip of legs and mandibles.

And then the battle was over as quickly as it had begun. The ants had vanished. I imagined most of them survived because there were far more of them than there were of the wasps. The yellow jackets returned to their silent cruising low over the yard.

How did the yellow jackets know of the ants and their situation? What did the yellow jackets do to communicate so quickly and efficiently with other wasps? And how did ants from different colonies all mixed together like that react or respond to one another while under attack? Would it be any different if thatching ants were involved in the fray? Would they spray burning toxins at the yellow jackets? The ants were at a disadvantage as their powerful shearing jaws face the ground and not the air. I felt a mix of remorse and wonder. And went back to my work. Life goes on for the living.

William Dudley Bass

September 15, 2009

Revised December 7, 2011

(NOTE: The River House did complete a taxing short-sale process in the depths of the Great Recession. And the original version of this essay was first published in one of my earlier blogs, Cultivate and Harvest, at Then two years later I rewrote and posted to my new On Earth at the Brink @ and here, too. Thank you.)

© Copyright 2011 by William Dudley Bass

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