It’s Sting Season in Alabama: How to Identify Yellow Wasps, Hornets, and Honey Bee Nests


It’s almost that time of year when biting insects will be at their peak.

An unusually milder winter coupled with an abundant food supply led researchers at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University to warn Alabamians of massive yellow jacket nests after discovering this year two so-called “perennial nests”.

While yellow jackets are the most common insect that stings people and causes the most death from anaphylactic shock, according to Dr. Charles Ray of the Extension and Auburn, there are other similar creatures that could constitute a danger in Alabama.

To the untrained eye, there isn’t much of a difference in the appearance of yellow jacket nests and other biting insects like hornets and bees, Ray. The easiest way to identify the nests of various insects is their location, the expert said.

Yellow jackets

Yellow vests are very common in the South.

“In disturbed areas – where humans live – they do pretty well,” Ray said.

Yellow vests usually build their nests in a cavity in the ground and often search for abandoned rodent nests.

“If he comes out of the ground, it’s usually a yellow jacket or a bumblebee,” Ray said.

The nests are usually shaped like large soccer balls and are made of paper. They have several levels of combs, like honeycombs, with paper on the outside. The entrance to the nest is at the very bottom.

“Most people meet them because they get too close to them or pass them the lawn mower. Ray said. “Most of their bites will occur in the defense of their nests.”


Like the yellow jacket, the bumblebee also nests in cavities but is not as common in Alabama.

Unlike the yellow jacket, bumblebee nests do not have combs. Instead, the bees make wax cups on the nest floor and fill it with nectar and pollen for the bee larvae to crawl into.

Bumblebee nests are also much smaller than yellow jackets. The maximum size for a bumblebee nest is around 600 bees, while yellowjacket nests could hold up to 5,000 workers by peak season in August, according to Ray.


Hornets, including the bald hornet and the European hornet, make their nests above the ground, but bald hornets prefer higher elevations.

“Bald hornets nest so high that they rarely interact with people,” Ray said.

European hornets, which were introduced to North America through New York Harbor around 1848 and slowly spread throughout the eastern half of the United States, prefer hollowed trees for their nests. These nests will also extend outside a tree and be made of paper.

European hornets defend a larger radius around their nests than yellow jackets, with some hornets known to sting people within 30 feet of their homes.

“They’re scary bugs if they’re after you,” Ray said. “They fly at 35 miles an hour. You are not going to outrun them.

Honey bees

Honey bees nest in cavities but make their nests out of wax – using the beeswax they produce – instead of paper. The most likely locations for honey bee nests are inside trees or near flowers.

Honey bees produce by colony division, or “swarming,” when they escape from their cramped nest. The bees will land on a tree branch while the colony scouts will find a cavity to build a new nest. They travel as a unit during the swarm and look like a small tornado.


Ants generally do not build structures for nests.

Most stinging ants, like the fire ant, nest in the ground. Some will dig and search for rotten wood and the nest will not be visible.

Ant nests can be underground and can extend up to six feet underground, according to Ray.

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