The Grammarphobia Blog

Insect aside

Q: A relative of mine used the expression “meat bees” to describe the insects buzzing around the burgers when she was on a camping trip. I googled the term and discovered it referred to yellow jackets, but I couldn’t find its etymology. Do you have any idea where it comes from?

A: What an interesting (though creepy) question! Etymology meets entomology.

The creature you’re talking about is not a bee per se, but a kind of wasp, the Western yellow jacket (Vespula pensylvanica), a scavenging variety found in warmer parts of the western and northwestern US and Canada as well as Hawaii.

The Western yellow jacket is often called the “meat bee” because it’s attracted to meat (it has a gigantic appetite for protein).

It’s often seen around garbage cans, around campsites (where it competes with campers for their hamburgers and hot dogs), or around pet-food dishes kept outside.

Meat bees are a major headache in the summer months in California and year-round in Hawaii.

These wasps are extremely aggressive, both when they’re foraging for food and when their nests are disturbed.

They build their nests underground, often in abandoned rodent burrows, so an unwary walker can inadvertently set off a swarm of angry Vespula pensylvanica.

The meat bee is not to be confused with the non-scavenging aerial yellow jacket (Dolichovespula species), which makes its paper nests in the open air and which is considered beneficial because it feeds on insects.

The University of California, Davis, has an informative web page on Vespula pensylvanica and other yellow jackets. If you’d like to read more, check it out.

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