DEAR JOAN — Help! As many people here do, we have an outdoor barbecue area. We've been using it for the past few years and not had any problem until recently.
Everything's fine when we bring out the food and as we are cooking, but as soon as we put the food on the table, the bees arrive in swarms. It got so bad last time, we had to give up and take all the food inside to eat.
The barbecue area is covered and has a ceiling fan. I tried turning it on full blast but that didn't faze the little devils.
Do you have any suggestions as to how we can rid ourselves of these pests?
Gael Venn, Gilroy, California
DEAR GAEL: I'm pretty sure when you say "bees" you actually mean yellowjackets.
Bees, whether they are honey, carpenter or native, don't typically swarm barbecues or picnics, unless you're serving nectar-filled flowers. Yellowjackets, which are wasps, are meat eaters and they love a good summer cookout.
In the spring and summer, when the colony is getting established and there are mouths to feed, the workers forage mostly for protein. By late summer, the need for meat is less, and the yellowjackets switch to sugary foods.
Yellowjackets not only can be annoying, they can be dangerous. They are aggressive and will attack anyone or anything that they perceive as a threat. Even swatting at them can trigger a disproportionate response, and approaching or disturbing a nest will unleash a fury. Unlike bees, which can sting only once, the yellowjacket can sting multiple times.
All these behaviors make them unwanted guests at a barbecue, but they are considered a beneficial insect, eating a large number of bugs that eat our plants. And for all you arachnophobes out there, they also eat spiders. They aren't as good as bees for pollination, but they do some of that, too.
For these reasons, and the risks associated with trying to eliminate them, it's best to leave them be and stay clear of their nests. The queen hibernates in the winter, and except in a few areas, most of the workers die off, making them a seasonal issue.
That doesn't mean you have to abandon your backyard. There are a few things you can try. The first is to take plain brown lunch bags, wrinkle them up, puff them out and hang them around your patio. The idea is to create the appearance of other wasp nests in the area. It often works to warn off the wasps, although this is most effective when done in the late winter or early spring, before colonies get established.
You also can set your table with fresh herbs, particularly lemongrass, thyme or spearmint. Yellowjackets are known to dislike the smell of peppermint, so putting out some cloths sprayed with peppermint oil can help to deter them.
Other people swear by cucumbers. Lay slices in a single layer in an aluminum tray and put it on your table.
You also can make a food offering to them. Before dishing up your food, put a small piece of meat or something sweet on a plate, and set it far from where you'll be dining. The wasps should busy themselves with that, leaving you to dine in peace.