Natural Solutions for Keeping Wasps and Yellow Jackets Away

by Jade Shutes
Last October, I was going through my usual routine of maintaining one of our cabins. As I swept the deck of one of the cabins, I unknowingly disturbed a yellow jacket nest, and in an instant, I found myself under an attack. The yellow jackets swarmed me, stinging me multiple times before I could escape into the cabin.
 
Within minutes, my body was covered in hives, and I knew something was terribly wrong. My husband urged me to go to the emergency room, as my condition was rapidly deteriorating. I got in my car and started driving, but halfway to the hospital, I began to struggle for breath, and a feeling of impending doom washed over me. I pulled over and dialed 911. I was on the verge of passing out, and every breath was a battle. I was going into anaphylactic shock.
 
The emergency team arrived in the nick of time, and I cannot express my gratitude for their swift actions and expertise. Since that day, I have had to carry an EpiPen with me during the summer months, a constant reminder of the danger that lurks in the form of these tiny insects.
 
This harrowing experience has fueled my determination to find a solution, and that’s why I am writing this blog post about using essential oils to create aromatic sprays that can keep yellow jackets at bay. My goal is to protect myself, my cabins, and others from the potential harm these insects can cause and to share my knowledge with those who may face similar challenges. Through my research and experimentation with essential oils, I hope to create a safer environment for everyone and prevent others from going through the same traumatic ordeal I faced that fateful October day.

The Potential of Essential Oils as Wasp Repellents

Several studies have explored how different essential oils can keep social wasps, like yellow jackets and paper wasps, away. In 2013, a study in the journal _Pest Management Science_ looked at 21 essential oils to see how well they worked against various types of wasps.

The researchers found that 17 of the 21 oils were good at repelling one or more kinds of wasps when used in traps.

The most effective oils were clove, pennyroyal, lemongrass, ylang-ylang, spearmint, wintergreen, sage, rosemary, and lavender.

When these oils were released at a rate of 30-45 mg per day, they almost completely stopped wasps from being attracted to the bait in the traps. Interestingly, even some oils that are known to repel mosquitoes, like catnip oil, also worked well against yellow jackets and paper wasps.

To study the best oils further, the scientists made two mixtures. One had equal parts of clove, geranium, and lemongrass oils, while the other also included rosemary oil. When tested by themselves, these mixtures did not attract yellow jackets or paper wasps at all. In fact, traps with just the oil mixtures caught even fewer wasps than empty traps, suggesting that the oils actively repelled the wasps. The mixtures also completely stopped wasps from being attracted to the bait in the traps and greatly reduced their attraction to other strong attractants like heptyl butyrate and rotting meat.

In a field test, the researchers placed the clove, geranium, and lemongrass mixture directly above a powerful wasp attractant. They found that it reduced the number of yellow jackets visiting and landing on the bait to the same low level as the empty control traps. When the mixture was placed 50 cm away from the bait, it still reduced the number of yellow jackets coming close to the bait by over 60% and almost completely prevented them from landing on it.

Here are some of the top performers:

    • Clove bud (Syzygium aromaticum)
    • Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
    • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
    • Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)
    • Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
    • Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
    • Sage (Salvia officinalis)
    • Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus syn. Rosmarinus officinalis)
    • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
    • Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
    • Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
    • Citronella (Cymbopogon nardus)
    • Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis syn. Chamaemelum nobile)
    • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
    • Sweet Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare)
    • Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
    • Peppermint (Mentha × piperita)

In one study, a blend of clove, geranium, and lemongrass oils completely blocked wasps’ attraction to meat baits and a common chemical attractant. Even on its own, clove oil reduced wasp visits to baited traps by a whopping 95%! When researchers tested individual compounds from these oils, they found that eugenol (from clove), menthone (from mint), and citral (from lemongrass) were some of the most powerful wasp repellents.

What Makes These Oils Repellent?

Using a combination of gas chromatography and electrophysiological recordings, the researchers were able to identify many of the specific compounds in the effective oils that triggered responses in wasp antennae. Some of the most active compounds included menthone, linalool, terpinen-4-ol, isopulegol, citral, eugenol, methyl salicylate, and thujone. Synthetic versions of these compounds also showed significant repellency when tested individually, lending further evidence that they are key to the oils’ repellent activity.

Many of the most repellent essential oils, like mint, sage, and oregano, were from plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae). Clove, which was highly effective, is from a different family, but its main component, eugenol, was one of the most repellent individual compounds. This suggests that plants may have evolved these strong-smelling essential oil compounds as a defense against insect pests.

Putting Essential Oils to Use

While research into essential oil pest repellents is still fairly new, the results so far strongly support their potential as a natural alternative to conventional insecticides. So, how can you put this knowledge to use to keep wasps away from your next outdoor gathering? Here are a few ideas:

    • Look for natural pest control products that contain oils from plants like clove, lemongrass, mint, sage, rosemary, or geranium. Combining multiple active oils will likely give the best results.
    • Try making your own essential oil repellent by mixing a few drops of these oils with water or carrier oil in a spray bottle. Spray it liberally around your picnic table, patio furniture, garbage cans, or anywhere else wasps tend to congregate. Re-apply as needed. See Recipe below!
    • Set out cotton balls soaked in repellent essential oils around your outdoor space. The scent should help deter wasps from hanging around.
    • If you have an essential oil diffuser, try running it on your porch or patio while you’re outside. The oils’ scent may help mask food odors that attract wasps and directly repel them from the area.

The Bigger Picture

The discovery of essential oils’ potential as natural pesticides goes beyond keeping wasps away from your picnic. In a world increasingly concerned about the environmental and health impacts of synthetic chemicals, finding effective botanical alternatives is becoming a major priority. Essential oil repellents could provide a safer option not just for homes and gardens but also for agricultural pest control.

And it’s not just wasps—studies have found essential oils to repel a wide variety of insect pests, including mosquitos, ants, beetles, and cockroaches. As we continue to unravel the complex chemical ecology of plants and insects, we may discover more useful natural compounds hiding in plain sight.

Of course, much more research is still needed to fully understand the potential and limitations of essential oils in pest control. Factors like the oils’ volatile nature and varying chemical profiles can make formulating effective, consistent, and shelf-stable products tricky. As the authors of the wasp study point out, figuring out how to deliver the repellents in a way that balances efficacy, safety, cost, and environmental impact will be an ongoing challenge.

But the more we learn, the more it seems that essential oils are poised to play a key role in the future of green pest control. So, the next time you’re planning an outdoor event, consider leaving the bug spray on the shelf and letting plants’ fragrant defense mechanisms work in your favor instead. With a little help from our botanical friends, we may all soon be able to enjoy our summer festivities with fewer pests and more peace of mind.