Each fall, as apples fall to the ground, barbeque grills are fired up, and pumpkins don front porches – one insect often gets blamed for another’s pesky behavior. This article intends to clear up the misconceptions about honey bees and their “look alike” meddling cousins the yellowjackets. Both are beneficial insects, but one is more bothersome to you and me.
Ohio is home to numerous species of bees – some are native (like bumble bees, carpenter bees, squash bees, etc.) while others are not. The familiar honey bee is an example of an introduced species brought to America by European settlers nearly 400 years ago. One significant difference between native bees and honey bees is their lifestyle. Most native bees are solitary and live alone in a single nest while honey bees build large colonies made up of hundreds to thousands of bees.
You may commonly find honey bees and native bees on your flowers and vegetable plants. Bees are beneficial pollinators. They collect pollen and lap up nectar inside flowers then take these back to the bee hive where they will be stored as honey and bee bread. Pollen and nectar are their sole food sources providing carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals they need. Rarely will bees visit picnic tables to sample sweet or savory treats.
You might also find an occasional wasp in your garden. Wasps include hornets, yellowjackets, mud daubers, among others. They also visit flowers to drink the sweet, sugary nectar. Unlike bees, wasps are beneficial predators. They are carnivorous and have a diet made up of other insects, including caterpillars, spiders, flies, and bees. Yellowjackets will consume just about anything at your picnic table – from sugary sweets like soft drinks and fruit to savory steaks, hamburgers, and hotdogs. They are notorious for hanging around garbage bins and compost piles, sampling whatever is available.
Here are some key differences between bees and wasps to help you tell them apart. Bees are covered in hair, making them appear fuzzy or furry (see image). The hairs on a bee’s body collect pollen and help the bee to effectively pollinate flowers. Wasps are smooth and shiny without noticeable hairs. Yellowjackets have yellow and black bands on their slender, shiny bodies. Their waists are also very thin compared to a bee.
Both honey bees and yellowjackets live in social colonies. Yellowjackets generally build a paper nest in the ground, but these can also be found above ground and inside cavities in walls and other areas. Honey bees nest in beehives made of beeswax, hollowed tree trunks, and in wall cavities, but never in the ground.
The honey bee is generally docile unless it is protecting it’s hive and growing brood of young bees. Once a honey bee stings someone or something, it dies. Wasps, on the other hand, are aggressive and search out their food. They can sting multiple times, making them a more formidable adversary.
Honey bees overwinter in their hives feeding on stored honey until the spring. Yellowjacket hives die out after several frosts, and only new queens survive the winter months. These queens will start new nests in the spring.
I am just finishing up a summer-long survey of native bee species here in Putnam County. All bee samples re being sent to Wooster next week for proper identification. I’m excited to learn about how many native bee species we found this year…and will report on that in the spring. In the meantime, for more information on native bees, honey bees, and wasps, please visit OSU’s Bee Lab at beelab.osu.edu. There are so many wonderful resources for you there.