Suburban Wildlife Control of Illinois

Home | About Us | Services | Areas Served | Photo Gallery | Contact Us


the Courier News

Bees Getting the Bum Rap of Fall

By: Dave Gathman

Brad getting ready to take care of bees as seen in Courier News article Sept. 2010

Brad Lundsteen rings the doorbell of a client
before a round of pest exterminating.
Lundsteen was getting rid of bees on Sept. 27, 2010.
| Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media


Nov 23, 2010 07:30AM

ELGIN — When the “bee” stung her a couple weeks ago, Elgin librarian and amateur gardener Tish Calhamer knew just what to do. It may have saved her life.

“He kind of dive-bombed me,” she recalls. “I was just standing in my yard, and he bumped into my elbow and stung. I usually get stung every year or two while I’m gardening, and one had stung me on the knee this summer, with no special problem. But this time, my face started swelling up and I started itching all over and I was starting to have trouble breathing.”

They were the same kind of symptoms she had suffered before when she had an allergic reaction to food containing sesame. She was going into a life-threatening condition called anaphylactic shock, in which the body reacts so severely to an allergen that breathing can be shut off.

Because of the food allergy, Calhamer carries a little syringe called an “epi pen” with her. She shot the needle into her arm and injected a quick dose of epinephrine to counteract the reaction from the sting.


Contractor Jim Makris of Elk Grove Village also had been stung many times without incident, including once just the day before. But after when he was stung in the left temple by a “bee” while working in his yard on Sept. 12, he also went into anaphylactic shock. As he called out to his wife that he was feeling very sick, he had no epi pen to counteract the reaction.

By the time paramedics arrived, he had stopped breathing and had suffered a heart attack. Suffering through both kidney and lung failure, he survived nine more days in Alexian Brothers Medical Center but finally was declared brain dead.


A group of cross-country runners from Round Lake High School were training in a Lake County park Sept. 21 when they apparently ran too close to an underground “bee hive.” Suddenly a cloud of angry striped insects swarmed them, stinging 10 of them at least once each.

The boys finally were able to run away from the stinging cloud. Fortunately, none of the 10 was especially sensitive to the stings and suffered more than a painful sore or two.

Such stories have become typical of northern Illinois life in August, September and October. Even as the weather turns glorious, the “bees” turn awful. According to the state’s public health department, 50 to 100 people die every year from bee and wasp stings in Illinois alone, and untold thousands more suffer painful stings.

Angel vs. demon

But the poor honeybee that gets blamed for most of this carnage isn’t guilty at all. The great majority of these autumn “bee stings,” insect experts agree, actually are inflicted by a pesky little bee-like wasp called Vespula germanica, or “the German yellow jacket.”

While honeybees arrived in the Americas just 12 years after the Mayflower, and therefore are of genteel breeding, the German yellow jacket snuck in illegally just 50 years ago. They weren’t seen in the United States until September 1960, when a well-educated high school biology teacher was shocked to spot one Vespula germanica in a schoolboy’s insect collection on the East Coast. Her ancestors probably had smuggled themselves into the United States recently from Europe aboard some unknown ship.

From a human viewpoint, honeybees seem like heaven-sent angels, yellow jackets like demons from hell (or at least from Germany).

The honeybee is essential to pollinate beautiful flowers and nutritious fruits and veggies. A honeybee can sting just once, so she takes great discretion before deciding to do so. The stinger gets pulled out of her body by that self-sacrificing act and the bee dies soon after.

The German yellow jacket hornet, by contrast, is fairly useless as a pollinator, though she will suck up flower nectar or juice from rotting fruit or anything else that’s sweet — like the Coke in that can you’re about to hold up to your mouth.

Mainly, Miss Yellow is carnivorous, eating caterpillars and flies and bits of dead animals out in the wild, and feasting on your leftover hamburger in the land of the Golden Arches. In fact, some biologists think it’s the easy availability of trash cans outside fast-food restaurants that has made the species so successful in recent years. In the fall, with the young mostly already raised, their preference shifts from meat to sweets.

Like other wasps, a yellow jacket can sting over and over, with no harm to herself. And, being high-strung, she seems more eager to do that than a bee is.

The bee killer

Brad Lundsteen of rural Elgin has drawn both pain and money from the yellow jacket. He makes his living as owner of the Suburban Wildlife Control pest-removal service.

“This year is the worst in a long time for yellow jackets,” he said, probably because the frequent rains and long hot spells made ideal conditions for all kinds of insects and the plants they eat.

“The last few weeks, I’ve been getting three, four, five, eight calls a day to remove ‘bees,’ and 80 percent of them are really yellow jackets,” he said as he donned a screenlike beekeeper’s mask and some welder’s gloves in the driveway of an expensive home near St. Charles.

The homeowner, computer consultant Paul Studer, pointed to where yellow jackets were busily hovering for a landing or lining up for takeoff, like jets at O’Hare, from a crack between stones five feet above his home’s doorway. “I just noticed that yesterday, so I gave you a call,” he told Lundsteen.

“Open up that soffit and you’ll probably see a paper nest the size of a basketball,” Lundsteen replied.

Lundsteen used duct tape to seal off the openings to his clothing at the wrist and ankle.

“One time I was in a hurry and didn’t seal the ankles,” he said. “I got yellow jackets inside my pants, very mad, and I got stung in places where you don’t want to get stung. Never again!”

He climbs a ladder, carrying a stick-like can of insecticide dust called a “Dustick.” He pokes its nose into the crack and starts pumping in the dust. Angry insects start coming out in a cloud, trying to sting through his armor. Some start coming out of cracks between stones higher up, so he pumps insecticide in there, too.

“Once a TV cameraman was with me,” the exterminator recalled. “He said he wanted to come up the ladder behind me, to get a close-up view of the bees. I told him, ‘You don’t want to be there.’ But he said, ‘That’s OK. I’ll be fine.’ He got stung 20 times.”

When Lundsteen struck, many of the hundreds of hornets that called this soffit home were out in the field, looking for food and water. But the powder will linger in the cracks and any additional yellow jackets arriving will be killed by it. too, he said.

Unlike the powder that professionals like Lundsteen use, liquid wasp sprays available at hardware stores will kill any yellow jacket they touch but won’t linger, he said. So if a nest is sprayed in the daytime, the yellow jackets not in the nest at that time won’t be killed.

A homeowner can try spraying a nest after dark, while all the insects are at home and asleep. But it’s hard to ensure the spray reaches all parts of the nest, Lundsteen said.

Dining with bees

Loving both meat and sweets, yellow jackets are a special nuisance to those eating outside in the early fall. When the first Taste of Dundee was held in Fireman’s Park in East Dundee in the 1980s, three people were taken away by ambulance after yellow jackets that had landed on their food or had sneaked into their pop or beer cans stung the inside of the Taste-goers’ mouths, causing their tongues to swell.

But at the outdoor dining section of the Village Squire restaurant in West Dundee last week, Assistant Manager Donna Farrell said she and her staff have counterattacked and are winning.

They created a yellow jacket minefield by filling Ball jars full of sweet grenadine juice and honey, topped by roof-shaped plastic entranceways. Lured by the sweet smell inside, 20 or 30 live, wet yellow jackets literally were “mad as a wet hornet” inside one bottle as they danced frantically on top of a thick pile of their sisters who had drowned in the enticing but deadly liquid.

The servers also had tied a Bounce fabric softener sheet around the pole above each outdoor table. “The smell of Bounce keeps away both yellow jackets and mosquitoes,” server Lola McGavock said. “I was at a party once where they didn’t have any Off!, and somebody said they should put up Bounce sheets, and it really worked.”

As Donna Ellison ate a salad with another employee from The Agency staffing service, only one yellow jacket circled her plate, occasionally landing for a quick taste.

“He doesn’t bother me. He doesn’t eat much,” Ellison joked. “The waitress said they really get attracted by ketchup, because it’s both sweet and red.”

Whether it’s the grenadine-and-honey traps or the fabric softener that’s doing the trick, relatively few al fresco diners have been bugged by yellow jackets at the Squire this year, Farrell said.

Horror tales

“Four or five days ago, I had a job that was like something out of a horror movie,” Lundsteen said as he climbed down the ladder. “The ‘bees’ had built their nest in the ceiling of a home in Roselle, and they got out of that and were all over the inside of the bedroom. There were (yellow jackets) everywhere in that house. They’ll need a disaster recovery service to clean up the mess.”

That reminded the wildlife man of another Roselle case a few years ago.

“A woman called me up near the end of the day and asked, ‘Do you do bees?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I have about wrapped things up for today. Can I come by tomorrow morning?’ And she said, ‘They just killed my husband.’

“I thought she was kidding. But then the story of that happening came on the TV news.”

Yellow jackets vs. honeybees

Honeybees are blamed for much of the mischief that yellow jackets commit at this time of year. The two creatures are both social insects, living in colonies in which only one queen laps eggs. They have roughly the same size and shape, and both come with striped abdomens. But here are some ways they differ.

Appearance: The honeybee is a bit hairy and has brown and orange stripes. The yellow jacket is hairless and striped in black and yellow.

Home: Both wild honeybees and yellow jackets are likely to nest in the walls of a home, or in rotten wood. Honeybees make combs out of wax to hold both honey and their babies.

Yellow jackets also like to nest in the ground, often expanding an abandoned mouse hole or rabbit den. Yellow jackets make no honey. They chew up wood to make paper combs similar to those in a hornet’s nest or a wasp’s nest.

Food: Honeybees are vegetarians, eating the pollen and nectar from flowers.

Yellow jackets are omnivores and scavengers. In the wild, they eat fruit, nectar, caterpillars, other insects and dead animals. In suburban America, they also enjoy human garbage, restaurant food and sweet drinks.

Life cycle: Honeybee hives live on indefinitely, surviving the flowerless winter by eating stored honey. Hives reproduce by having the old queen and some of her followers “swarm” to start a new hive while a new queen continues laying eggs in the old hive.

A yellow jacket nest starts in the spring with just one pregnant queen. The nest keeps adding more and more individuals all summer and into the early fall, until a typical nest holds 1,000 to 3,000. When late autumn’s chills set in, hundreds of pregnant young queens leave the nest and find warm holes to sleep in through the winter so they can start new nests in the spring. Their sisters in the old nest die of cold and old age.

Danger: Honeybees can each sting just once before dying.

Yellow jackets, like wasps and hornets, can sting over and over, and are more likely to sting for no apparent reason.

SOURCES: University of Illinois and Ohio State University

Copyright © 2011 — Sun-Times Media, LLC

original story link:


Home | About Us | Services | Areas Served | Photo Gallery | Contact Us
Top of Page