Let it Bee

Bees, hornets and wasps are all examples of flying insects that can sting. Even though most people lump all three of these bugs into a single category—namely bees—there are distinct differences in both the appearance and the demeanor of each of these insect species. While some are a bit more tolerant of animal and human activity, others can be extremely short-tempered and aggressive—especially at this time of year.

Three different bee species inhabit the Finger Lakes Region: Honeybees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees. Anyone who has a flower garden is no doubt familiar with the first two. Both of these bee species are beneficial because they pollinate crops, fruit trees, and other plants. Both are colonial in nature as well, meaning that they live together in a social community made up of a queen bee, drones, and worker bees.

Bees make and store honey to feed their young and to share for winter survival food. Honeybees build their hives in hollow trees, attics, eaves, chimneys, and bee boxes while bumblebees more often nest underground. Of the three species, only the honeybee can be somewhat domesticated and used for personal or commercial honey production. Beekeepers often rent out their bee boxes to farmers to ensure the pollination of crops and fruit trees.

Carpenter bees are solitary and do not form community groups. They build single nests just for themselves and only feed their own young. These large bees have the ability to drill into wood, which is where the “carpenter” moniker comes from. Anyone who has cedar or pine fascia on their house is subject to carpenter bee damage because of the holes and tunnels that the insect drills into the wood to lay its eggs and nurture its larva.

All three of these bee species can sting, but rarely do unless their nest is disturbed. A honeybee’s stinger is pulled out of its abdomen during the sting, causing the insect to die after it flies away. The bumblebee and carpenter bee can both sting repeatedly and survive because they do not lose their stingers. Bumblebee stings are the most painful but the carpenter bee rarely stings at all.

Hornets and wasps are a different story. They’re just plain irritable. While bees are essentially pollinators, hornets and wasps are aggressive hunters that feed on other insects, including bees. If you look closely, you’ll see that bees are somewhat plump and furry while hornets and wasps have elongated ant-shaped smooth bodies. Most hornets and wasps build nests from a material that resembles paper, except for the little yellow jacket, which nests in the ground. Run over a yellow jacket nest with the lawn tractor and you’ll soon see how nasty they can be. They’re also attracted to sugary things so be careful if you leave a can of soda on the railing of your deck when doing yard work. You might find a surprise in the next sip.

All of these stinging insects are busy at this time of year preparing for winter and they’re not very patient. Bees are filling their larders with pollen to make honey and hornets and wasps are hunting bugs for the same reason. I have lived with the paper hornet’s nest pictured above hanging 10 feet from my deck railing for most of the summer. So far, we’ve been mutually respectful.


Story and Photo by John Adamski