This time of year, most beekeepers I know are inundated with phone calls and text messages asking, “Are these bees?” or “If there are bees in my shed, will you come and get them?” I absolutely LOVE that homeowners are beginning to question before pulling out the Raid and everytime I get a call or message such as this I get excited, however, many of these are false alarms. So I offer this post, not to criticize anyone for questioning the swarming insects at their BBQ, but to offer some insight because mistaking a wasp for a honeybee, for example, could be dangerous.
Outward Appearance: Yellow and brown, but at first glance, mostly brown. They also have a fuzzy appearance.
Sting Factor: Low, honeybees die when they sting, so they don’t want to sting unless they have to. They are defensive stingers, not offensive. You leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.
Pollinator Quotient: These creatures are pollinating super heroes. The pollinate flowers, fruits, and veggies. Apples, grapes, peppers, and cucumbers are just a few plants who require their services, but there are many more. Around your home you may find them in smaller blossoms such as fennel, bee balm, sweet alyssum, or lavender. They also love Milkweed!
What To Do: If honeybees have taken up residence in an inopportune place, look online for local beekeepers or a local beekeeping club. There are many people who will happily come and do a cutout. Some charge for this service, others do not.
Outward Appearance: These guys are big, fuzzy and bumbly (hence the name!). They look mostly black at first glance, but if you get a good view of their back, you can easily see the yellow stripe. You really can’t miss a bumblebee in your garden because they kind of loll around and move haphazardly from flower to flower.
Sting Factor: Low, like honeybees, bumblebees are not terribly aggressive stingers. Female bumblebees can sting multiple times, but typically won’t bother you, if you don’t bother them.
Pollinator Quotient: Like honeybees, bumblebees collect nectar and pollen. This means, they move from flower to flower and are important pollinators. Their numbers are also drastically declining, like the honeybee’s, and their contribution to our food source is just as significant.
Lifestyle: Bumblebees live a similar lifestyle to honeybees, but on a smaller scale. Their colonies number anywhere from 50-400 (honeybee hives can include upwards of 50,000 bees). While non-aggressive towards humans, they are pretty aggressive towards other bumblebees and tend to invade other colonies, killing the queen, and usurping her resources.
What To Do: Bumblebees usually nest in the ground and, if they are in an area that isn’t bothering you, they can be left alone. The hive dies out in the winter, with the exception of the fertilized queen, who goes dormant until spring. If they are in an area that is bothersome, unfortunately, there does not seem to be a way to move them without killing the colony. Because they are such important pollinators and their numbers are on the decline, I would try to live with them if at all possible. However, we all know that sometimes that is not possible and they need to be exterminated.
Wasps (Yellow Jackets & Hornets)
Outward Appearance: Most of the time when I get calls about bees, they turn out to be these guys. As they are swooping at your face, they do resemble honeybees, however, both yellow jackets and hornets are sleek and shiny looking. Their backs are a bright black and yellow, with no brown fuzz (like the honeybee). Hornets are a bit slimmer, but it’s hard to tell the difference when they are swarming out of your shed!
Sting Factor: High. These suckers can be nasty. Wasps are predatory insects and can sting repeatedly. They are known to sting without provocation, unlike honeybees and bumblebees.
Pollinator Quotient: A wasp’s diet consists of insects, fruit, nectar, and tree sap. They are not significant pollinators because they are not covered in tiny hairs (like bees), which collect and distribute pollen. Wasps may visit a flower to catch another insect, but they do not collect pollen.
Lifestyle: Both yellow jackets and hornets are social, like bees, and live in colonies can can number 4000-5000. They build these easy-to-recognize paper nests:
They can also build nests underground, which is dangerous as any unfortunate lawn-mower can attest. Like bumblebees, the colony dies off in the winter, leaving only a fertile queen dormant until spring.
What To Do: I’m generally very pro-nature and organic, but these things might be what RAID was made for. If these guys are building a nest on your party deck, they need to go. Ideally, you can catch the nest when they first start to build and scrape it off in the evening, when there are no yellow jackets around, but if you happen upon an infestation, arm yourself!