Bees, Hornets & Wasps

Bees, Hornets & Wasps

For the most part, an encounter with one of these stinging insects, especially if they are alone, will not result in a sting. Here, the old axiom "leave them alone and they will leave you alone" holds largely true. The bees listed above (bumble bees and honey bees) are mostly gentle creatures who sting in defense of their homes. So unless you stumble across a bee hive, you are highly unlikely to get stung. Just let them go about their business. The same goes for the paper wasps. The hornets and especially the yellow jackets can be more persistent and aggressive...and yellow jackets are notorious scavengers for our sweet human foods and drinks. Swatting at them won't help. Keeping your food sealed and limiting their exposure will.

An encounter with an entire colony of these insects can be more of a problem. If you encounter a large nest of wasps, or a hive of bees, walk away carefully and quietly. Once again, if you don't disturb them, you will likely be fine. Should you trigger an attack, then your best bet is to RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN away from the nest. Bees and wasps in general have a defensive zone around their colonies, and if you move out of it, you are likely to be safe. "Playing dead" won't help...run away!

Finally, if you have a nest of these insects in your home or yard, you may need to have them removed. But perhaps you can find a way to live in peace. If not, we strongly recommend a professional exterminator. Stings can be dangerous, especially if you are part of the 1% or so of Americans who may be allergic. Contact your local exterminator if you feel you must take action.

One last note on honey bee swarms. If you see a swarm of exposed honey bees in your tree, but no permanent nest (honeycomb), you are lucky enough to witness a wonderful part of the colony life cycle. Swarming is how honey bee colonies reproduce. These bees are searching for a new home, and are very often not defensive at all. They will take a couple of days to find a new home, and then disappear as suddenly as they arrived. If you see a swarm, you are best off to just leave it alone and let them pass through... they should be gone in a few days. Remember, swarms have no permanent nest structures, just bees. If you see a nest you don't have honey bees - you have wasps. If you see honey comb, the bees have settled down in your tree (unlikely unless it is in a hole in the trunk). You may consider having them removed if this is the case.

Bumble bees

Bumble bees are not very aggressive, nest anywhere they can feel protected, and are beneficial pollinators of both crops and wildflowers. These bees live in small colonies of hundreds, and can be quite gentle. (note their fuzzy abdomen). Bumblebees and honeybees are grouped together by entomologists into the family Apidae or social bees, and form part of the insect order Hymenoptera, which also includes solitary bees, wasps, ants, sawflies and ichneumon flies. Honeybee colonies are perennial, but bumblebee colonies are annual affairs which die-out each autumn, leaving only young mated queens to survive winter and start new colonies again each spring (rather like the social wasps). All the fairly large bumblebees seen flying in early spring, are overwintered queens busy feeding and searching for nesting sites after their long hibernation. Some bumblebees nest in cavities underground, often taking over old mouse holes, whilst others nest on the ground surface in rough grass or moss (3 above). The nest comb and brood-cells are made from a waxy material produced by the bees from special wax-glands on their bodies, and the whole nest is usually covered and protected inside a ball of dead, finely shredded grass, moss, animal fur or similar material.

The smaller bumblebees seen foraging on flowers through most of the summer are workers. The queen rears the first brood of workers herself, but then the worker bees take over the duties of collecting food, rearing the young and building and maintaining the nest, whilst the queen devotes herself to egg-laying.

Bumblebees feed on pollen and nectar, and rear their grubs on the same diet. In this respect they differ from wasps, whose young are fed on a meat diet of caterpillars and other insects. Towards the end of summer bumblebee colonies produce males and new queens. The males (or drones) do no work in the colony and quickly leave the nest to search for, and mate with, the new young queens from other colonies. Once fertilized, the young queens also abandon the nest to start their winter hibernation - usually in small underground chambers in well drained soil, often under stones, logs or in grassy banks. Male bees die after mating, and when the young queens have departed, the rest of the colony soon perishes and dies.

Bald-faced hornet

These large wasps live in large nests made of mottled gray paper, usually in trees. These wasps are quite aggressive and put a whopper of a sting on you. Tread lightly around these wasps. The bald-faced, or white-faced, hornet, widely distributed throughout North America, is about 3 cm (about 1.2 in) long and is black with white markings on most of its segments and on its face. Its gray nest is usually suspended from a tree limb. Yellow jacket is a name applied to a number of species that have extensive yellow markings.

The European hornet first appeared in the eastern United States about 1850. This hornet is reddish brown streaked with yellow and attains a length of more than 2.5 cm (1 in). Its brown nest is built in hollow trees, in rock crevices, or on human structures. Like the smaller hornet species, it eats insects and their larvae and ripe fruit. In several hornet species, no workers are produced. Instead the female lays its eggs in the nests of other wasps, where the eggs hatch and the young are fed.

Hornets belong to the family Vespidae, of the order Hymenoptera. The bald-faced, or white-faced, hornet is classified as Vespula maculata. The European hornet is classified as Vespula crabro.

European Honey Bee

The honey bee is a valuable pollinator and the source of the honey we eat in this country. If you see a honey bee, chances are a beekeeper lives in the area. These bees are not very aggressive, especially alone on flowers. They live in large perennial colonies, consisting of a queen and up to 50,000 or more worker bees. All the nest building and food gathering is done by the workers; the queen remains in the nest (or hive) throughout her life, continuously laying eggs, and is tended and fed by the workers. New queens and drones are produced from time to time, usually when the colony is about to swarm or when the resident queen is failing and about to die. In the latter case, after mating with a drone, one of the new queens will take over the colony. Swarming occurs when the old queen or one of her new rivals take off with a swarm of workers to start another colony. Queen bees live for several years, but the drones and workers are short-lived. Summer workers rarely live for more than a few weeks, although later-maturing individuals will survive through the winter. Drones usually die after mating, but in any event they are thrown out in autumn when the colony settles down to hibernate, and soon perish.

Although most Honey Bees originate from man-made hives, swarms do occasionally escape into the wild. Wild colonies sometimes nest in the open on tree branches or other suitable support, but more often they nest inside hollow trees and similar sheltered places, hanging their expose combs in vertical sheets from the roof of the nesting cavity. The comb is made from wax secreted by the worker bees. Each cell of the comb is a perfect hexagon and the cells are used for rearing the young and storing pollen and nectar. The adults and grubs feed exclusively on honey - a mixture of pollen and nectar.

Carpenter Bees

Carpenter bees are found throughout the United States. The most common and frequently encountered are the large carpenter bees which resemble a bumble bee, with the difference in appearance being a shiny and black dorsal abdomen surface as opposed to the yellow and black hairy one of the bumble bee. Another difference is the presence of mandibles immediately below the compound eyes in carpenter bees.

The carpenter bee is unique because it will nest by boring holes into any dead wood that is available, be it your house, deck, fence, overhang, or windowsills. Although the holes they make may only appear to be a couple of inches deep, the fact is that they don't stop there, hence the potential for severe structural damage. After initially boring into the wood, the carpenter bee will make a 90 degree turn, tunneling anywhere from 6 inches to four feet. These tunnels serve as eggs chambers. After the initial tunnel is bored, there are often many more branches coming off of that. A chewing noise may be heard several feet from where the bee's are excavating their galleries. After the nest is established, the female carpenter bee will go out foraging for food. It is common to see the female buzzing around azaleas, Bradford, daffodils, and pansies. Male bees will also be hanging around these flowers looking for a potential mate. When a male carpenter bee is buzzing around the flowers, it is because he is looking for a mate. If someone walks by, the bee will become curios and start buzzing around the new visitor. This often causes people to believe they are being "attacked.," when in reality the male has no stinger. The female carpenter bee does have a stinger but has no interest in stinging people.

Carpenter bees become active when temperatures warm up to the 70s. Mating usually occurs in April and is accompanied by a strange bobbing dance performed by the male. The females prepare a series of brood cells in the tunnels, providing each with food ("bee bread" - a mixture of pollen and nectar), an egg, and a partition of chewed wood. Most females produce 6 to 8 young. The larvae develop from May to August and then emerge in September. The earliest bee to hatch must make its way through the partition in which it was sealed and then carry out the duty of cutting through all of the other partitions that his tunnel mates were held in.

Despite the fact that carpenter bees excavate galleries and it may seem that they eat wood, they in fact do not. They instead prefer that good ole bee standby, pollen.

Paper Wasps

These wasps build smaller nests of paper usually on overhangs of buildings. They are moderately aggressive, but the small colonies are quite easy to handle. Catching these nests early with only one or two wasps on it is best for controlling them.

Paper wasps such as Polistes fuscatus aurifer, P. apachus, and P. dominulus are large (1-inch long), slender wasps with long legs and a distinct, slender waist. Background colors vary, but most western species tend to be golden brown, or darker, with large patches of yellow or red. Preferring to live in or near orchards or vineyards, they hang their paper nests in protected areas, such as under eaves, in attics, or under tree branches or vines. Each nest hangs like an open umbrella from a pedicel (stalk) and has open cells that can be seen from beneath the nest. White, legless, grublike larvae sometimes can be seen from below. Paper wasp nests rarely exceed the size of an outstretched hand and populations vary between 15 to 200 individuals. Most species are relatively unaggressive, but they can be a problem when they nest over doorways or in other areas of human activity, such as fruit trees.

Yellow Jacket Wasps

These are the nuisance wasps that crawl in your soda can and bother you at picnics. They are fairly aggressive and will sting without much provocation. They build nests underground or, unfortunately, in structures such as your attic or walls.

The term yellowjacket refers to a number of different species of wasps in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula (family Vespidae). Included in this group of ground-nesting species are the western yellowjacket, Vespula pensylvanica, which is the most commonly encountered species and is sometimes called the "meat bee," and seven other species of Vespula. Vespula vulgaris is common in rotted tree stumps at higher elevations and V. germanica (the German yellowjacket) is becoming more common in many urban areas of California, where it frequently nests in houses. These wasps tend to be medium sized and black with jagged bands of bright yellow (or white in the case of the aerial-nesting Dolichovespula [=Vespula] maculata) on the abdomen, and have a very short, narrow waist (the area where the thorax attaches to the abdomen). Nests are commonly built in rodent burrows, but other protected cavities, like voids in walls and ceilings of houses, sometimes are selected as nesting sites. Colonies, which are begun each spring by a single reproductive female, can reach populations of between 1,500 and 15,000 individuals, depending on the species. The wasps build a nest of paper made from fibers scraped from wood mixed with saliva. It is built as multiple tiers of vertical cells, similar to nests of paper wasps, but enclosed by a paper envelope around the outside that usually contains a single entrance hole. If the rodent hole is not spacious enough, yellowjackets will increase the size by moistening the soil and digging. Similar behavior inside a house sometimes leads to a wet patch that develops into a hole in a wall or ceiling.

Immature yellowjackets are white, grublike larvae that become white pupae. The pupae develop adult coloring just before they emerge as adult wasps. Immatures are not normally seen unless the nest is torn open or a sudden loss of adult caretakers leads to an exodus of starving larvae.

Aerial-nesting yellowjackets, Dolichovespula arenaria and D. maculata, build paper nests that are attached to the eaves of a building or are hanging from the limb of a tree. The entrance is normally a hole at the bottom of the nest. These aerial nesters do not become scavengers at the end of the season, but they are extremely defensive when their nests are disturbed. Defending D. arenaria sometimes bite and/or sting, simultaneously. Wasp stingers have no barbs and can be used repeatedly, especially when the wasp gets inside clothing. As with any stinging incident, it is best to leave the area of the nest site as quickly as possible if wasps start stinging.