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It’s Nature at its worst.

Yellow jackets are ALWAYS jerks. What other insects go out of their way to repeatedly sting little children and their doting mothers for no discernible reason? It’s perfectly shameful, that’s what it is. Why, I can think of half a dozen vulgar synonyms to substitute for “jerks” right now, but Southern Living won’t print them. But as obnoxious as yellow jackets are all the time, they elevate their abhorrent behavior to an even higher level this time of year. Why? I shall explain.

Yellow jackets, of which there are many species, belong to the genus Vespula. They get their name from the prominent yellow-and-black bands displayed on their heads and bodies. They are not bees that pollinate plants and sting only once. They are small wasps that prey on bugs and spiders and even take bites out of meat. They can sting repeatedly whenever they feel like it, which is pretty much always. The Eastern yellow jacket (V. maculifrons) is the most common species in these parts. It’s about a half-inch long and usually nests underground beneath leaves, rocks, fallen logs, and tree trunks, although it occasionally invades tool sheds, attics, and outhouses. (That last one just isn’t fair.)

How It Begins

A nest begins with the only yellow jacket from a previous nest to have survived the winter – a fertilized queen. After deciding on a location for the new nest, she lays eggs that hatch mostly into sterile females called workers. It’s the job of workers to expand the nest (up to thousands of individuals), care for eggs and the ensuing larvae that turn into more workers, hunt for food to bring back to the queen and larvae, and defend the nest. They seem to enjoy defense the most. Anything a worker determines to be a threat causes it to cough up a pheromone that signals all other workers to attack the threat and sting the bejeepers out of it. They then all throw a party and get buzzed.

Workers come equipped with powerful sets of jaws, yet they don’t eat solid food. When they find suitable prey, the kill it and chew it into soft goop. They fly home and feed the goop to a hungry larva. The larva rewards the worker by secreting a drop of sweet honeydew that the worker drinks. Workers will also drink sweet nectar from flowers while foraging, but larvae supply their primary nourishment.

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For a time, anyway, and this is where the higher level of insufferability kicks in. Towards the end of summer and in fall, the queen slows and then stops egg production. No more eggs mean no more larvae. No more larvae mean no more drops of honeydew to feed workers. Workers get irritable -- even more than they naturally are. They swarm out in search of sweet liquid found in ripe and rotting fruit, sweet tea, cider, soft drinks, beer, wine, and other things. Where they find it, they find you. You swat at the yellow jacket, the yellow jacket stings you, you flee screaming, and the yellow jacket goes back to gleefully sip more cider and beer.

Most individual stings aren’t serious. They cause burning, itchy, welts and swelling, but usually resolve in a couple of days. But numerous stings or even a single sting to someone who’s allergic can be life-threatening. Click here for suggested treatments.

Getting Even

Nobody of basic intelligence wants a yellow jacket nest on their property. The best way to spot one is to watch for a steady stream of yellow jackets flying to and from the entry hole to the nest during the day. Your next step is buying a can of jet-spray wasp and hornet killer and following label directions. Jet-spray allows you to spray from 20 feet away. Creep up on the entry hole at dusk when yellow jackets are less aggressive and most are in the nest. Take aim at the hole and LET ‘ER RIP! The spray kills the little jerks on contact. Soak the nest; scream, “Die, you loathsome [insert vulgarity here]!”; and celebrate with your favorite beverage.

A sweet one.