Tomatoes and Yellow Jackets

One late morning I walked down to the garden to pick some tomatoes. This is the second year I have grown my tomatoes in four-foot tall cast off fruit bins from the local orchards. These bins make terrific raised beds for an upright gardener like me, since I don’t need to bend over for planting, weeding, or harvesting.

A friend of mine who lives in the forested foothills of Mount Adams in Washington uses over twenty of these fruit bins to grow all sorts of vegetables.

But my climate and conditions are different from hers, and I recently discovered a serious down side to gardening in these containers.

The bins have a heavy black liner that sits inside the container. The liner doesn’t lie flush up against the box; and so, in many sections there are gaps and spaces between the liner and the box. These spaces provided the perfect home for yellow jackets to build their nests, and by late summer the seven boxes had over twelve nests encircling the tomatoes and my bee-feed flowers. I didn’t know this until that morning I went down to pick some tomatoes, and I approached a plant. I saw six yellow jackets milling about on the lip of the container, but didn’t think anything of it until I reached in to pick another ripe tomato, and a yellow jacket zoomed from the nest entrance –shooting like a bullet and struck my arm. It stung me, and rocketed away. I screamed and dropped the basket of tomatoes I was holding. The intention behind that targeted attack stunned me.

Until that moment I had viewed yellow jackets as annoying but beneficial creatures. Like the turkey vulture they devour dead animals and clean up the environment. For all picnickers know how yellow jackets like meat and these insects will persistently try to attach themselves to a burger or a slab of grilled salmon. I knew they were obnoxious in this way, but I did not realize they would purposefully sting me. Later, I also discovered they are highly territorial around their nests.

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This photo has been manipulated to emphasize the gap between the black liner and the wooden bin. These gaps were present on each side of all seven containers.
This photo has been manipulated to emphasize the gap between the black liner and the wooden bin. These gaps were present on each side of all seven containers.

Bruce suggested we approach the garden at night when the yellow jackets are calm and saturate the areas between bin and liner with wasp poison, but this presented a problem for me. Wasn’t I growing my lovely bee-feed garden to provide nectar for the pollinators and to attract predators for the pest insects that cause problems in vegetable gardens? And, I had bees and insects of all sorts coming to those flowers. And further research showed me, “despite having drawn the fear and loathing of humans, yellow jackets are in fact important predators of pest insects” (Akre 102). I felt it was impossible to spray the area to kill these wasps.

For five days my arm puffed up due to an allergic reaction, and it itched like crazy. Consequently I stayed far away from the tomatoes.

Later I compromised and picked some of the tomatoes at night when the predatory yellow jackets were quiet, and then I picked a big load of green tomatoes (as a farewell) and fried some up while using the rest for a green tomato sauce, which I poured into eight pint containers and placed in the garage freezer.

The final tomatoes from the garden produced a lot of green sauce.
The final tomatoes from the garden produced a lot of green sauce.

Next year I either get rid of the bins or change to 18” – 24” raised beds like most people have, or I fill all the gaps completely with insulation, so the yellow jackets cannot build nests. That is if I have the heart to try growing tomatoes for a third year when I can easily buy them and in large quantities for canning at the local farmers’ markets and fruit stands. Still if I do this, then I don’t have the satisfaction of knowing I have overcome the many obstacles of a novice tomato grower. Being a “give up gardener” might mean the fruit stand tomatoes don’t taste quite so sweet.

15 thoughts on “Tomatoes and Yellow Jackets

  1. i say spray those suckers dead. there is no shortage of them and they have been known to kill people. and hard as it is, never scream around yellow jackets. the gas emitted from your adrenals makes them angrier.or something like that. i hate them. we have wasp traps up all around our property. they’re just not the same as honey bees.
    the wasp spray is more of a foam and stays in one location. i think the bin gardening is ideal. hope you’re having a good trip. look forward to seeing you when you return.

    1. i say spray those suckers dead. there is no shortage of them and they have been known to kill people. and hard as it is, never scream around yellow jackets. the gas emitted from your adrenals makes them angrier.or something like that. i hate them. we have wasp traps up all around our property. they’re just not the same as honey bees.
      the wasp spray is more of a foam and stays in one location. i think the bin gardening is ideal. hope you’re having a good trip. look forward to seeing you when you return.
      Thanks Gigi– did you see Cindy’s reply? I think I might try those fake nests; if they work here , I am sure my nearby relatives would like to know about them too. Sher

  2. When still in Rice I lived with paper wasps- hundreds of them in my house at times- and was always surprised when I got stung. Each time seemed accidental- I got in their space in my space… I’m glad you’re not extremely allergic, though I know one can develop an allergy like that after too many stings. Do you have an epi-pen?

    I love that you paused and considered the bigger ramification of nature red in tooth and claw. You are both so ingenious, I’ll bet you’ll find a solution to making those containers jacket-proof for next season. For now, one thing you might try is hiring a beekeeper to smoke them out so you can stuff the crevices with patching material. I think you’re going to end of growing amazing tomatoes just because you’ve got so many challenging angles to take care of.

    1. When still in Rice I lived with paper wasps- hundreds of them in my house at times- and was always surprised when I got stung. Each time seemed accidental- I got in their space in my space… I’m glad you’re not extremely allergic, though I know one can develop an allergy like that after too many stings. Do you have an epi-pen?

      I love that you paused and considered the bigger ramification of nature red in tooth and claw. You are both so ingenious, I’ll bet you’ll find a solution to making those containers jacket-proof for next season. For now, one thing you might try is hiring a beekeeper to smoke them out so you can stuff the crevices with patching material. I think you’re going to end of growing amazing tomatoes just because you’ve got so many challenging angles to take care of. Thanks Valerie- I cannot imagine 100 wasps inside my house. Wow! But, it will be interesting to see what the future brings. I like the idea that Cindy has used with fake nests. Hmm, looks like I have several options.

  3. There is another effort worh trying! I have lots of yellow jackets at the farm too and when researching options I came across something that has worked miracles here…a fake bee hive (not a hair do :-)) . They are the same size, shape as traditional wasp nests but made of light weight paper. Because all bees are territorial, the yellow jackets were threatened by the “hive” and voluntarily moved away. The first year I hung one and was amazed at the result. This year I put one in my greenhouse when i noticed a small mud nest being initiated…the bad boys moved out within 24 hours! I hung one in the shop and one where we dine outside all summer and oila! it worked there too! I couldn’t be happier…you can buy these inexpensive wonders at Ace Hardware and don’t have to kill a single bug. I should get out of my comfy chair and go take a picture, but it’s been a long farm day…trust me, this is fast, cheap and so easy.

    1. There is another effort worh trying! I have lots of yellow jackets at the farm too and when researching options I came across something that has worked miracles here…a fake bee hive (not a hair do :-)) . They are the same size, shape as traditional wasp nests but made of light weight paper. Because all bees are territorial, the yellow jackets were threatened by the “hive” and voluntarily moved away. The first year I hung one and was amazed at the result. This year I put one in my greenhouse when i noticed a small mud nest being initiated…the bad boys moved out within 24 hours! I hung one in the shop and one where we dine outside all summer and oila! it worked there too! I couldn’t be happier…you can buy these inexpensive wonders at Ace Hardware and don’t have to kill a single bug. I should get out of my comfy chair and go take a picture, but it’s been a long farm day…trust me, this is fast, cheap and so easy. Hi Cindy! Nice to hear from you. Thanks for this idea. It makes sense, and I can think of several places to try it out; although I can imagine filling in those gaps too. I would like to have a fake nest in the greenhouse though. I am so surprised I have not heard of this before, because we have family in the next valley, and they have lots of problems eating outside because of the “meat bees” or yellow jackets. I need to let them know. Thanks again.

  4. Better to have an enemy/ally whose nesting site you know, than one whose nest is a mystery. That works for counter-terrorism AND yellow jacket control.

    1. Better to have an enemy/ally whose nesting site you know, than one whose nest is a mystery. That works for counter-terrorism AND yellow jacket control. True Tim, because when you don’t know it’s there, you can be in even more trouble. At least now I can make a plan. I didn’t mention this, but we had nests up at the UPS box, and, of course for everyone’s safety Bruce did spray them. I was worried about the mail carrier, because he did not know they were there.

  5. Sheesh, that must have been scary! When we had wasps living near our washing line, we put up with it for a while… because we also didn’t want to spray them, and we thought that, if we used the wrong spray, they would get very aggressive and protective of their nest. In the end, we got a professional beekeeper/wasp removal man in to help us. He sprayed them because it would’ve been too dangerous to let them nest right outside our door; it felt awful to do that, but ultimately the best solution. I’m relieved that your allergic reaction didn’t require hospitalisation! Phew!

    I hope you’ll carry on growing your own tomatoes; most of the ones we get in the shops are genetically modified, and it would be awesome to have home-grown organic ones instead. We’ve often had small ones self-seeding in our garden, and they taste soo much nicer than the store-bought ones.

    1. Sheesh, that must have been scary! When we had wasps living near our washing line, we put up with it for a while… because we also didn’t want to spray them, and we thought that, if we used the wrong spray, they would get very aggressive and protective of their nest. In the end, we got a professional beekeeper/wasp removal man in to help us. He sprayed them because it would’ve been too dangerous to let them nest right outside our door; it felt awful to do that, but ultimately the best solution. I’m relieved that your allergic reaction didn’t require hospitalisation! Phew!

      I hope you’ll carry on growing your own tomatoes; most of the ones we get in the shops are genetically modified, and it would be awesome to have home-grown organic ones instead. We’ve often had small ones self-seeding in our garden, and they taste soo much nicer than the store-bought ones.

      Hi Reggie- I would think in South Africa you would have so much sun and warmth you would be able to grow sweet tomatoes without an issue. Next year I will really be careful and I will not create an environment they like to nest in, and I want to try that suggestions of Cindy’s to put up a fake competitive nest. I have four of five places I would try those. Glad you went to a pro in the end- this does sound best. Good to hear from you. 🙂

  6. Boy, what challenges! I’m doing more gardening now too. Had lots of tomatoes that are green. Have a fun fall trip. I’m in DC NOW VISITING with Rhonda, they are transferred back here again. Take care, Judi Sent from my iPhone

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    1. Boy, what challenges! I’m doing more gardening now too. Had lots of tomatoes that are green. Have a fun fall trip. I’m in DC NOW VISITING with Rhonda, they are transferred back here again. Take care, Judi Sent from my iPhone Hi Judi– Thanks for writing from Washington DC; I have my brother back there, and I grew up in that area- Virginia side. One day try frying green tomatoes– West Virginia style… sliced with salt, pepper, sugar, flour in butter or olive oil. A childhood favorite for me. 🙂

    1. I never heard of the fake nests but I love it – I’m allergic so I might get a few for my yard. Hi Karen– I have been traveling the past two week so did not see your post! Thanks for commenting. Check the link Cindy posted (in th elist of other commentors) it shows the nest and where to get it. I plan on trying this next year at our farm and will report back! 🙂

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