Guest Post: Living with Beneficial Insects by Joshua McNichols

Today while I was gabbing my friend Joshua on the phone he said “I’m watching a yellow jacket eat a green caterpillar.” I immediately shouted into the phone “GO get your camera and take pictures for me!” He caught these amazing pictures and wrote a guest post which is timely given Chiot Run’s post today on beneficials in the garden over at

Joshua is a master composter, architect, writer, father of small children, stuffer of sausages, baker of bread, fellow chicken owner and urban gardener. In 2010 I’ve been leading him and his family down the same path that I took in 2009 – meeting food producers, sourcing things locally and ditching the store.

He hosted last fall’s barter fair where the Seattle Urban Farm Coop members gathered to trade canned goods, backyard eggs and honey, homebrew, goat milk soap and baked goods. Together he and his wife own Moment Architecture. While you are on their site be sure to check out the amazing chicken coop and grape trellis he designed and built. If you are local and looking for someone to come build coops, trellises or large planters he is your guy.

I’m working on Joshua to join me here at SustainableEats so hopefully you’ll see many posts from him in the future.

Guest Post: Joshua McNichols
I’ve often read that yellow jackets eat soft-bodied insects, like aphids and caterpillars. But I’ve never actually seen it. Today, that changed. As I walked past the chocolate mint plants surrounding my chicken coop, I spied a yellow jacket feasting on some kind of caterpillar. The caterpillar was still alive as the yellow jacket scooped soft flesh from its back! Disgusting, but fascinating.

Yellow Jacket

A yellow jacket begins her feast on this soft-bodied caterpillar

Predators like yellow jackets play an important role in an organic garden. A yellow-jacket nest near a garden will help keep your garden pest-free. If you have a yellow-jacket nest nearby, consider whether it’s really a nuisance. We have children, so I won’t abide nests where children will step. But I’d welcome yellow jackets where they’re out of my toddler’s reach.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Yellow jacket decapitates caterpillar. 2. Her belly full, she cleans herself before flying away. 3. One of several friends who will come by to help finish off the meal.

To minimize the trouble yellow jackets can cause during a family barbecue, I like to plant flowers throughout my vegetable garden, as yellow jackets like to supplement their protein with sweet nectar from flowers. I also like to leave a few aphid-covered nasturtiums around in less visible locations. This ensures that the yellow-jackets won’t be starved for protein when I’m grilling hamburgers or salmon. I’m still experimenting with methods of distracting the yellow-jackets while my family eats outside.

For example, I place a small slab of salmon, as an offering to the yellow jackets, well away from where we’re eating. A dab of honey might make the insects’ meal even more enticing. But I resist traps that kill or confine and starve the yellow jackets, because I know how much they help they provide in my garden. What non-lethal techniques have you tried for controlling yellow jackets while you’re barbecuing?

7 Responses to Guest Post: Living with Beneficial Insects by Joshua McNichols

  1. Interesting post and the suggestion to put out some distractor food offering is a good idea. We do not have a lot of yellow jackets here so have not had to do anything special to keep them at bay during barbeques etc.

  2. KFG they are all over here. In the late summer we can’t even eat outside for them. We do leave offering plates but it doesn’t really help. I have newfound appreciation for them after seeing these pictures. I think we need to get more birds perhaps?

  3. I think that is why we do not have a huge amount of them – because we have a large population of birds on our property.

  4. Love the photos, so cool. I’ve got a few photos of a praying mantis eating a fly.

    We often get so caught up with bad bugs to remember that even they are important to the ecosystem. Now don’t get me wrong, if a yellow jacket builds a nest under your deck by all means get rid of it, but if they build a nest away from the house, leave them be.

    It’s amazing how much the insect population balances out once you quit selective killing the “bad” ones. We had a HUGE yellow jacket nest in the front yard once. I ran over it with the mower and got stung 12 times (bad since I’m allergic). But the next morning when we were thinking about maybe doing something about it we noticed a skunk dug up the nest and killed them.

    You can also watch for queens in the spring and only get rid of the ones you see thinking about building nests close to the house. I think like Josh says though, if you have enough flowers & other insects around the yellow jackets leave you alone.

  5. Chiot’s Run I loved your post, especially the image of the little bird in the bird house peeking out. I would so love to visit the haven you’ve made!

  6. This is such a great website, thanks for all the info!

  7. Yes Joshua – thank you for this post!

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