Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Honey Bees, Wasps and Hornets - Oh My! Or, What kind of "bees" are these?

Since I started doing bee removal jobs in the Philadelphia region, I have fielded tons of calls that end up being about stinging insects other than honey bees. I don't deal with these other insects, I refer them out to someone else. I wanted to create a quick guide that will help people to learn about whether their bees are honey bees or not, because even though we like to call everything that flies and stings a "bee", that is surely not the truth.

Is it a Honey Bee Hive?

Is it hanging from a tree or from the eaves of your house or your window? Does it look grayish and kind of papery? Does it look like clay or mud? Does it look like any of these? Did you just notice it in July as it started to grow larger?

Images from Google Search for "Wasp Nest"

If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes", then we are not dealing with honey bees. In fact, chances are, if the hive is out in the open and you can see it, they are not honey bees.

Honey bees usually build their colonies inside of structures (whether those "structures" are walls, eaves, roofs, trees, planters, birdhouses, fire hydrants, etc - doesn't matter too much to the bees). And remember that honeycomb is made out of beeswax, not mud or twigs or papery substances. There are rare occasions when honey bees will start building their hive from a tree limb out in the open, but that doesn't happen too often in our climate (Philadelphia, PA, USA). And if it did, the comb would look white and waxy, not gray and papery or muddy and you would see many, many bees on the comb. Here is what honeycomb looks like...

Large sheets of honeycomb

Comb in a wall

Wavy comb in the ceiling

One other important point is that a honey bee hive will have LOTS of activity and traffic on a nice summer day. You will see tens, if not hundreds, of bees coming and going every minute. If it is a nice warm summer day and you are only seeing a few insects here and there every few minutes, chances are they are not honey bees. A mature honey bee colony will have tens of thousands of bees in it, while most social wasp and hornet colonies will have hundreds (or less) to maybe a few thousand.

Is it a Honey Bee Swarm?

I also get calls about a "humungous swarm of bees" flying all over our yard and attacking our children - only to find out that its 10 yellow-jackets eating a lollipop that one of the kids threw on the ground. A swarm of Honeybees has THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of bees in it. If they are flying, they will fill the air like a scene from a hollywood movie. If the swarm has landed, it will be in a cluster the size of a grapefruit at the minimum and a beachball or larger at the maximum. No other stinging insect swarms and clusters like this, so if you are seeing this phenomenon, it is most assuredly honey bees that you are seeing. Swarming is the natural way that honey bee colonies reproduce and it is a totally normal and typical event for honey bees.

One other important thing to remember is that honey bees that are in swarm mode are very docile. So even though it looks scary, there is nothing to worry about. Before leaving their previous home, they all gorged on honey in order to have some resources on hand when they set up their new home, so all of the bees have that post-Thanksgiving dinner tryptophan feeling. If they could be sitting on the couch watching football, they would be! While the swarm is gathered on the tree/fence post/fire hydrant/wherever, they are scouting for a new home (hopefully not in the walls of your house) and most swarms will move on in a day or two if left alone. But, if you see a swarm, definitely call or email me. Beekeepers love to catch swarms and it is pretty cool to watch. If you can't get a hold of me, try this list of beekeepers willing to pick up swarms. Here are some photos of honey bee swarms to help...

Swarm on bleachers

Swarm on tree limb

Swarm on ground in bush

Swarm on tree limb

And a (grainy!) video of a swarm in progress (turn up the volume!)...

And finally, I know it can be tough to differentiate between a honey bee and a yellow-jacket and a bumblebee and a hornet or one of the many other flying, stinging insects. Here is a decent guide. And here is an adorable picture of a honey bee, notice the fuzzy mid-section, which wasps and hornets do not have (photo courtesy of Amy Hsu)...

You can always call me to help you identify the insect, but hopefully this little guide has helped!

A Bevy of Bumbles

Well, we here a lot of news these days about bee die-offs, pollinator shortages, pesticide poisonings and other doomsday proclamations but things are looking just peachy in our little neighborhood. I went out in the yard about 10 days ago and what I saw made my jaw drop open. I saw a bumblebee bacchanalia on the sedum that has rapidly spread in our yard from one plant that I inherited from my dad's container garden collection. 

You can see a few honeybees on the sedum too in the video. Bees always love this plant and its nice because it is a late season bloomer. But I have never seen anything like this. The kids and I were petting the bumblebees and they were so nectar-drunk that they didn't care a wink. Here are a few stills - you can even see pollen grains on their fuzzy little backs (click on the photos to enlarge them).

Oh, and here's another picture from earlier in the summer. I put out one of the filters I use for cleaning beeswax and it's lovely smell attracted a plethora of pollinators. Here you can see some honey bees, a red wasp, some yellow-jackets and a teensy wittle itty bitty fly in the upper left all happily co-existing (well, there was a little jousting, but they were hanging out on this together all morning that day).