Bees and Wasps
Though related, bees and wasps differ in important ways. Most wasps have a narrow “waistline” where the front portion of the abdomen tapers to become a small tube as it attaches to the middle body section, the thorax. Bees do not have this narrowing of the abdomen. Another difference is that bees feed nectar and pollen to their young (larvae), while wasps feed their larvae insects and spiders. Yellow jackets and hornets also scavenge food including fruit, sweets, meats and carrion. One thing bees and wasps have in common is that some species are solitary and others are social. A solitary bee or wasp lives alone, making its own nest and raising its own larvae. Individuals of social species live together in colonies consisting of many “workers” and one or more “queens.” The workers specialize in different tasks, and cooperate to raise the queen’s offspring. These species should be considered a greater threat to humans than solitary species. This is because social species, such as honey bees and yellow jackets, will defend an entire colony, and have more individuals available to do so. Solitary species, such as mud dauber wasps, defend their nest alone.
The honey bee is a half-inch long, hairy, honey brown insect. They should not be confused with yellow jackets, which are black and bright yellow wasps. Honey bees live in extra large colonies of up to 50,000 individuals. Their colonies can grow this large because they survive winter, even in northern states. The nest consists of several tiers or “combs” made of beeswax. It is located in cavities of trees, rock formations and buildings.
The familiar buzzing, fuzzy yellow and black striped bumble bee is unmistakable. Up to 200, ½- to 1-inch long bumble bees inhabit nests in old rodent burrows, under porches and in wall voids.
This bee is a bumble bee look-alike that has a shiny, all-black abdomen, whereas the bumble bee’s abdomen is fuzzy, black and yellow. Unlike bumble bees, carpenter bees are solitary. Females chew ½-inch diameter holes in wood and bore tunnels that run several inches into the wood. Inside, eggs are laid and the resulting larvae develop on a mixture of pollen and nectar. Males guard the nest by buzzing intruders, but their defense is a bluff: male bees cannot sting.
Paper wasps are perhaps the most common wasps around structures. They are also known as “umbrella wasps” because their nests look like umbrellas hanging upside-down from eaves and overhangs. There are many species, but the typical paper wasp is up to ¾-inch long, reddish brown in color with a long, cylindrical abdomen. A paper wasp nest is a single comb of hexagonal cells made of a papery material the wasps form by chewing wood and mixing it with saliva. Larger nests can harbor up to 75 paper wasps including larvae and pupae developing within the cells. To feed the larvae, paper wasps capture insects, especially caterpillars. Late in the year, colonies of paper wasps, yellow jackets and hornets produce new queens that abandon the nest (it will not be reused) and seek shelter for winter. Many find their way into structures and are later seen crawling sluggishly across the floor when temperatures rise in late winter or early spring.
More people are stung by yellowjackets than any other type of wasp or bee. Notoriously aggressive, the yellowjacket’s shiny yellow and black striped abdomen is an unmistakable warning. Often mistakenly called “bees,” yellowjackets are in fact wasps. They construct paper nests up to several feet across that contain combs arranged like the floors of a building covered by a papery envelope. Up to 3,000 (many more in warmer states) wasps can be present in the yellowjacket colony. Nests of the Eastern yellowjacket are located in the ground, while the German yellowjacket nests in cavities including crawlspaces, attics and wall voids. Adults consume nectar and sweets, but feed the larvae on captured insects. When temperatures cool in late summer, yellowjacket numbers peak just as their insect food supply begins to decline. They scavenge more aggressively at this time, taking food from trash containers and picnickers. When disturbed, yellowjackets can sting repeatedly; their stingers are not barbed nor lost after stinging like those of honey bees.
The so-called bald-faced hornet is about ¾-inch long, black and white, with white face, is actually a larger yellowjacket species. Its nest is the familiar basketball-size papery oval hanging from tree limbs and sometimes structures. Colonies are relatively small, containing up to 700 wasps. An even larger wasp is the European hornet. This is a true hornet, more than an inch long and reddish brown in color with dull orange stripes. Nests occur in trees and in attics and wall voids of structures near forested areas.
Mud dauber wasps are named for their habit of constructing tubular nests of mud plastered on the exterior surfaces of structures. Inside the nest, these wasps place spiders they have paralyzed by stinging, as food for their larvae. Mud daubers are solitary wasps about ¾-inch long. Our common mud dauber is brownish-black with yellow markings. Its nests are about 2 inches long. Organ pipe mud daubers are black and construct nests that can be a foot long and resemble the pipes of a pipe organ. The blue mud dauber is a shiny, dark blue wasp that lays its eggs in the nests of other mud daubers.
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