This grumpy, chilly southern yellowjacket (Vespula squamosa) would not have let me get this photo if it hadn’t been 55 degrees F outside. She was sunning herself and did not appreciate being photographed; you can see her head turned toward me, and one foreleg half-raised in a very rude gesture.
These social wasps are found all over the southeastern US and down into South America. They build nests everywhere, including in “unusual” places such as the folds and corners of human habitation. Because they defend their nests, as a group, using painful and repeated stings, they are considered, in a somewhat understated way, to be “pests”. (Again, I am very lucky to have gotten this photo without having gotten some unwanted, poke-y, presents!)
Southern yellowjacket queens are dormant through the winter and in the spring form a new hive full of workers, much like bees. At the end of the season, new queens are born in the hive, mate, and leave to await the spring and the formation of new hives. The workers and the old queen die.
These wasps eat live prey, such as other insects (caterpillars are a favorite food), and actually eat many insects which attack cultivated and ornamental plant crops. Unfortunately they are also attracted to sugary things, such as ripened fruit or sugary food or soda.
I thoroughly enjoyed this extremely understated paragraph from the University of Florida Entomology web page on native Florida yellowjackets:
Any attempt to remove or destroy nests by the layman should be done at night when nest activity is at a minimum. It is important to note that even though nests are relatively inactive at night, any disturbance will result in instant activity by the colony. It is necessary to work cautiously but quickly. Protective clothing is advisable. These wasps are adept at stinging and are especially aroused if danger threatens the nest. Unlike the honeybee, which dies upon inflicting a single sting, vespid wasps may sting as often as they find a target. In fact, when a yellowjacket or hornet is injured it often releases an “alarm pheromone” which quickly results in an aggressive, defensive behavior from other members of the colony.UF|IFAS Entomology & Nematology Web site