WCBA & Industry News

Study into yellowjacket wasps and beekeeping

Arné Stander is researching a link between beekeeping and the spread of Vespula germanica and other invasive social wasps.

The German wasp, also known as the Yellowjacket (Vespula germanica) is an alien invasive insect species in the Western Cape.

It was first recorded in 1972. Veldtman et al. (2021) has shown that it is unlikely for the species to spread uniformly from where they are currently found in South Africa. However, human activities could aid in spreading it to other sites and even regions. For example, queen wasps can fly into cars and then leave the vehicle when the door is opened again.

In this study, I am specifically interested to see if normal beekeeping activities could inadvertently spread the German wasp in the Western Cape. In their native range hibernating queen wasps have been found to overwinter in empty beehives.

If this is also the case in South Africa, beekeepers moving their empty hives to other sites, may successfully translocate queens and possibly further spread the species. This idea has merit, as our investigation helped by an observant beekeeper has already found several queens hibernating in his old beehives which were stored under cover for winter.

The German wasp is yellow with black markings, yellow legs, and black antennae. They are often mistaken for another invasive social wasp species, the European paper wasp (Polistes dominula), which has similar coloration, except for the longer orange legs and orange antennae.

Vespula germanica is an insect predator and opportunistic scavenger scouting for various food items, including many different insects, such as our precious Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis), as well as meaty foods, such as bacon, fish, biltong, etc. They build paper nests,  mostly in the ground, preferably in moist and cool areas such as streams or riverbanks. Nests consists of several layers of paper comb covered by an outer layer of paper.

Wasps will ambush honeybees at flowers and at hives. When a wasp catches a honeybee, the wings of the bee are chewed off, the bee is beheaded, and the abdomen is bitten off. The worker wasp is just after the thorax, containing the protein-rich wing muscles, which is taken to the nest to feed the larvae.

Threats posed by the wasps

The wasps can deliver a painful sting and can be a nuisance around homes and public areas. The wasps can bother you at restaurants, especially outdoor dining areas. This wasp has a good sense of smell and will readily detect something meaty.

Aside from the nuisance factor, they pose a direct threat to the Cape honeybee.  A PhD student, Dikobe Molepo, is studying the prey items of these wasps. Preliminary results show that as much as 10% of the prey items brought back to the nest are honeybee (thoraxes). This percentage might be low, but considering the number of foraging wasps per nest, many honeybees will be killed to feed the larvae.

How beekeepers can help

What I want to achieve with this study, is to collect data from various beekeepers and from various localities on the frequency of German wasp queens found in empty beehives. I would like beekeepers to examine their empty hives for any hibernating queens, especially if they have seen activity of V. germanica in the area. The more data for the study, the better. Also, storage areas outside, under cover, should be inspected to look for hibernating queens in stacked empty hives.

Beekeepers who are interested in this project and would like to assist, can contact me via email at arne@babylonstoren.com.

More about Arné Stander

Since September 2016 I have been working at Babylonstoren, in Simondium. As an undergraduate, I studied for a BSc (Agric) in Conservation Ecology 2010-2013 at Stellenbosch University (SU) where part of my four-year course was entomology. Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by insects. Having entomology as part of my studies was a real treat and I knew that I would like to further my studies in entomology.

For my postgraduate studies, I did an MSc (Agric) in Entomology, also at SU, with a focus on insects of the Swartland renosterveld vegetation type. It was a documentation study, where I used four sampling techniques over a period of four seasons. I recorded 851 morphospecies. The collection is at Babylonstoren.

After I submitted my MSc thesis in 2016, I enrolled for an internship at Babylonstoren. I had first visited Babylonstoren when Dr Ruan Veldtman (my MSc and PhD supervisor) and I went there to remove Vespula germanica nests. We often went on these excursions, removing alien invasive wasp nests. I was accepted for a six-month internship.

During this time, I have worked a lot with Dr Ernst van Jaarsveld, master botanist at Babylonstoren. He was a great mentor from the beginning of my internship. I have learned more about plants, all thanks to him. During the internship period, I was offered another six-month extension. I gladly accepted this and enjoyed my time at Babylonstoren, working with the garden team. Close to the end of my internship, I was offered a permanent position as entomologist at Babylonstoren.

I am also the beekeeper at Babylonstoren, where I maintain and inspect all the hives on the farm. Funnily enough, I was allergic to honeybee stings when I started working with the bees. I even ended up in hospital once, but that is a story for another day. However, this did not keep me from working with bees. In addition, I have built up immunity as I get stung over time.

I also work with biological control in the garden, I maintain the ponds and dams on the farm and stock them with fish, where fishing is an activity for the hotel guests. We are also getting more wildlife species, mainly antelope which I also manage.

I got the opportunity to further my studies and am excited to combine my experiences working with honeybees with removing alien invasive wasp nests. It feels like these two spheres are coming together.

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