I find paper wasps to be incredibly beautiful - but their sting hurts horribly, and they can be aggressive.
My preference for knocking down problem wasp nests
In Southern California we have a species of paper wasp which makes amazing nests with combs or chambers, somewhat like a honeycomb. They make the nests out of bits of wood or plant material that they chew up and make into a type of paper.
The nests hang upside-down, typically under the edges of roofs or fences or sheds around houses. I've also seen them within plants, such as under a branch, and some very inconvenient spots such as under my neighbor's mailbox.
During winter months the wasps are inactive, but when warmer weather begins in springtime, they come out en masse, building new nests, and suddenly they're everywhere. Especially in the summer, they're a notorious pest due to their very painful sting, and because they're attracted to swimming pools.
In this article I'll explain a little more about these beautiful but dangerous insects, and how I've commonly thwarted their nest-building for many years using water balloons.
One of the most important reasons that I do this is because I hate killing them with poisons, and would rather allow them the chance to rebuild in a better location. I don’t think they deserve the death penalty due to not knowing where the humans don’t want them to build.
I have to admit that it's fun to plan and succeed at thwarting paper wasps from building nests in unsafe places around the house. It's somewhat dangerous and can make your heart pound as you know you're risking getting stung, but it can also be very much needed.
I take no blame if anyone gets stung trying this. Anyone who tries it is doing so at their own risk!
The species that lives around my house, called Polistes Apachus, might suddenly be responsible for dozens of nests appearing all at once around the house and yard.
Facts about paper wasps
I explained how they construct their nests, which start small but soon reach a few inches across. The largest I’ve seen was about a foot (30 cm) across, with hundreds of wasps on it.
Their sting is very painful. I’ve been stung just once, on my finger. Many people I know have been stung by them including family members, friends, and even one of my cats.
There is a scale made to rate pain caused by insect stings, developed by entomologists. The scale goes like this, and other insects besides those I list can be put anywhere along the scale, although nothing is as bad as tarantula hawks and bullet ants:
Level 1 = Fire ants
Level 2 = Regular honey bees
Level 3 = Paper wasps
Level 3.5 = Asian giant hornets
Level 4 = Tarantula hawks
Level 4+ = Bullet ants
Tarantula hawks, another type of wasp, live in Southern California, and I see them occasionally. I don’t know anyone who’s been stung by one, and I’ve heard it’s comparable to being strongly electrocuted. These wasps kill tarantula spiders and lay their eggs inside. The young eat the tarantula when they hatch.
Paper wasps will attack people who walk too closely to their nest. Since the nest may not be visible, like if it’s under the edge of a shed, angry attacking wasps may very much surprise someone.
The combs in their nests hold eggs. They make a chemical that keeps ants from attacking the nests. They are omnivores and eat small insects, caterpillars, grubs, but also fruits and fruit juices.
They commonly land where there’s water on concrete, such as around pools, or on your driveway when you’re washing your car. Also, they land on the surface of pools and can stand on the water and take a drink, even if the water is sloshing around, before flying off again. I’ve witnessed people get stung in pools.
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When it's time to go to war against paper wasps
These animals are amazing, intelligent, and fascinating in many ways. However, some years we’ve had a dozen or more nests around the house. Sometimes they’ve been directly over a doorway, and have at times flown into the house. Sometimes they’re right next to play areas for children.
So even though I would prefer to leave them alone, and I do if their location isn’t a threat, sometimes it becomes necessary to knock down the nest they’re building. However, this isn’t so easy and they will try to pursue anyone who does this. Hence my disclaimer in the introduction above.
The reason I use this method is because it usually doesn’t kill them, it just gets rid of their problematic nest. It allows them to build a new nest in a better location. I’ve been doing it since I was ten or eleven years old, and it works if you’re careful and you can aim well enough.
Wasp nests start out small, often with a single wasp, and continue to expand. Eventually if they don't get knocked down, they will expire and be abandoned and new nests will be started elsewhere. Nests typically get a few inches (10 cm or more) in size, and the largest I ever saw was about 12 inches (30 cm).
Important tips for knocking down a wasp nest
1. Focus on one nest at a time. Once one has been eliminated, wait awhile. I typically wait 30 to 45 minutes before the wasps have calmed down sufficiently. Meanwhile, they may attack anyone who comes near, looking to punish whomever knocked their nest down.
2. Try to get nests when they’re still small. When small they may have only one or two wasps on them.
3. Make sure no one is around when you do it, like to watch you, unless they’re a safe distance away (at least 50 feet/15 meters). Make sure children, pets, and anyone are out of the area or indoors.
4. Don’t try it if you can’t run reasonably well. You have to be able to throw the water balloon and get out of the way.
5. If you miss the nest, you’ll have to try again later, although they may be angry for awhile if a water balloon exploded nearby.
6. Throw the water balloon hard, the harder the better. If you can’t throw accurately, or with strength, have someone else do it who is willing. I played baseball as a kid, and I was a pitcher, so I could throw hard and accurately.
7. Larger water balloons increase the likelihood of knocking the nest down – but they’re also harder to throw, and may require being heaved underhanded with both hands.
8. Make a complete plan. Consider the best angles to throw the balloon at, where you’ll run immediately after throwing (your getaway plan), where the wasps are likely to land (need to move anything out of the way below the nest?), etc.
9. Carefully look under edges of sheds, fences, etc. Doing so in the morning or evenings is best, before or after they’re most active.
10. Consider knocking the nest down in early morning or evening when they’re less active, or even when it’s dark (taking a flashlight with you). If there’s a lot of active wasps, this may be the best option.
Battle plan, example #2 below
Examples of times wasp nests were knocked down
Once there was a small nest under our patio roof. It had two wasps, and needed to be removed because it was right where my daughters liked to play. The only real option was for me to open the sliding glass door, heave a water balloon underhanded with one hand, and then quickly close the glass door so they couldn’t attack me.
The largest nest I ever saw was on the side of my next-door neighbor’s house. They knew of my wasp nest removal abilities and asked me to get rid of it. It was about 12 inches (30 cm) across.
I made sure everyone was out of the backyard, and had the neighbors watch from a window in my house. I threw the balloon and ran all the way around their house, and then into my house. From the window, we could see hundreds of wasps. They were angry and swarming for over an hour, but the entire nest came down with a heave of a huge water balloon, thrown underhanded with both hands.
My neighbor tried to knock down several nests at once using a high pressure garden hose. Their daughter was standing on the driveway watching, and a wasp that was displaced flew over and stung her on her cheek. This is why I say to do one nest at a time.
A high pressure hose can work pretty well instead of a water balloon, but seems more awkward to me. It could make it harder to run away quickly.
Once there were three large wasp nests discovered by my wife under the edge of a shed. The wasps were only about three or four feet (one meter or so) off the ground, and could only be seen by crouching way down and looking up underneath – a dangerous position if the wasps decide you’re too close and attack.
So I waited until it was nearly dark and went out with a flashlight and slammed all three nests with water balloons. The wasps were resting and not prepared, and were too cold and inactive to come after me.
In a scenario like this, if there was just one nest I’d consider knocking it down with a long stick or long broom handle when they’re sleeping. Needs to be fairly long though.
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The correct water balloons to use
Typical water balloons often come in a small pack with a few dozen, for a couple dollars or so. Some come with a plastic valve that fits over a regular tap, to make them easier to fill. I've purchased them many times at Target.
For larger balloons, use regular party balloons but not too big of ones. When you fill water balloons for this purpose, they need to be near full capacity, so they’ll pop easily. I’ve seen balloons, filled insufficiently, simply bounce and not break open.
Know that afterward it is advised to pick up small pieces of balloon that land on the ground, or that may stick to a wall, or a fence, etc.