By U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Chief Kate Virsik
We were passing the food at our backyard family dinner when the first unwelcome guest arrived. My sister and I locked eyes across the table, and my wise-cracking brothers fell silent as the tension escalated. “Please, go away!”, we silently implored. Before we knew it, the ill-mannered intruder was joined by several friends who also sensed a tasty meal. The interlopers hovered around the table as we mounted a futile defense, but when they started to eat the food right off our plates, chaos erupted, and my family fled indoors, leaving the invaders to revel in their spoils.
This was not the first time Vespula pensylvanica, otherwise known as western yellowjackets, had ruined an outdoor gathering. Growing up in Northern California where this species of yellowjacket is prevalent, this was a normal occurrence for me each summer. Unlike bees, which beneficially pollinate plants, yellowjackets are scavengers and often seek out human food to supplement their diets. Yellowjacket stings and bites are not only painful but they also have the ability to cause allergic reactions in some people. Growing up in a family with a history of a bee sting allergy, this was something of which I was well aware.
Although my family uses yellowjacket traps, they never solved our perpetual yellowjacket issue. My frustration propelled me to find a different way to lure the pests away from our dinner table. I devised a series of experiments that compared heptyl butyrate (utilized in commercially available yellowjacket traps) to other potential attractants. At first, my results were discouraging as my new yellowjacket attractant ideas were inferior to the standard. After many failed trials, I decided to test combinations of different attractants. To my surprise, new experiments demonstrated that a simple combination of the industry standard attractant plus citric acid, one of my test agents, was a recipe my antagonists would find irresistible!
I filed a patent on my discovery with the hope that my new combination attractant could eventually be incorporated into commercially available traps. At the time, I had no idea that my initial interest in making outside family dinners more enjoyable would teach me about the legal side of science, how to conduct local market research, create a website, and design a logo. I am currently in the process of reaching out to pest control companies with a compilation of my work to see if they are interested in licensing my product.
Embarking on this journey gave me the confidence to brainstorm and act upon problems that I see in the world. I was reminded of my experience with yellowjackets when I participated in the USNSCC International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP) last February.
The IABP maintains a network of buoys in the Arctic to provide oceanographic data on sea ice melting, weather forecasting, and ocean currents. As a Sea Cadet in the program, I was tasked with designing a buoy to withstand the Arctic’s austere conditions and became intrigued when I learned that curious polar bears attack and destroy buoys causing millions of dollars in damage.
Currently, there is no ‘gold standard’ to deter polar bears from buoys, so as a part of my deployment method, I researched and planned pilot tests combining auditory and visual deterrents as well as olfactory and gustatory deterrents in order to search for a way to keep polar bears from damaging expensive buoys. My inspiration for seeking a polar bear deterrent came from my work in discovering a novel yellowjacket attractant.
I am grateful that my work with yellowjackets gave me the confidence to approach problems with an open and discerning mindset in order to find a solution. I will continue to strive to see the problems in the world around me and do what I can to help solve them.