Bees or Wasps?

bee and yellowjacket

Ag Biz News Column
Chad Gulley
County Extension Agent –Ag/NR
Smith County

Are they Bees or are they Wasps?

When people think about bees, they typically think honey bees or bumble bees.  In reality, there are almost 3,500 species of bees in North America.  As with any other insect, proper identification is important to know what species you have around your home or property.  It is also important to know the habits of these insects to help determine what species you might have.

Many of our local bee species are solitary.  Solitary bees build and tend their own nests without help from other members of the species.  Solitary bees may be seen nesting in the stems of plants, in holes in stone or wood, or in the ground.  Solitary bees are often overlooked and rarely sting people.  Other bees, including the honey bee and bumble bees, are social–living in nests or hives built communally by a colony.  Social bees sting, but usually only in defense of their nest.

Honey bees are not native to North America, but were brought to the country with some of the earliest settlers.  Many people are interested in becoming beekeepers.  Texas has a state beekeepers association and a number of local chapters that make it easy to become a beekeeper.  Honey bees are an important part of the natural landscape and are valuable to the Texas economy.  The beekeeping industry in Texas generates an estimated $10.4 million annually.  Agricultural crops pollinated by bees have a value of $40 billion.

Swarming is the method used by honey bees to start a new colony.  A swarm is merely a honey bee colony in search of a nesting site. A swarm generally consists of a mated queen bee along with hundreds or thousands of accompanying worker bees. Swarming bees are not normally aggressive and can, in most cases, be approached safely.  However, it is best to avoid getting too close to swarming bees, unless you are an experienced beekeeper.

Honey bees nest in a number of places including holes in logs, on tree limbs, in siding on houses, and a number of other locations.  Honey bees do not nest in the ground.  As mentioned earlier, honey bees are not normally aggressive but they will attack and defend their colony if they feel threatened.  Honey bees sting only once.

Bumble bees are social insects. Nests are usually constructed underground, and consist of a series of more-or-less spherical, waxen cells–some of which hold the eggs and young. Some of the cells also serve as storage receptacles for honey and pollen.  Nesting sites may be depressions in the ground, deserted mouse nests, hollow logs, cavities in rotten stumps, railroad tie retaining walls, or even piles of grass, weeds or rubbish. Bumblebee colonies are smaller than those of honey bees or yellowjacket wasps, and usually consist of only a few hundred individuals.

Carpenter bees are similar in appearance to bumble bees, but lack hairs on the top surface of the last body segment (abdomen).  Carpenter bees are not social insects and do not sting to defend their nests.  Their nesting activities, however, can damage wooden decks, patios and other structures due to their habit of boring nest holes in soft wood.

Yellowjackets are primarily ground nesters, but also construct aerial nests. Subterranean nests may be found in gardens, flower beds, pastures, roadside embankments and elsewhere.  Yellowjackets, being a wasp, can sting multiple times.  Some mistake yellowjackets for honey bees.

Proper identification is important when it comes to the various bee species.  Bees are considered beneficial but when they start nesting in your home or other buildings, they may need to be relocated.  Many people have allergic reactions to wasp or bee stings.  It is important to know the nesting habits of various wasps or bees around your home.  Also, as we begin bringing in plants into our homes for the winter months, check these plants to make sure no wasp nests are in these plants.

Extension programs serve people of all ages regardless of socioeconomic level, race, color, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.

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