Bees & Wasps

As a young summer-camp counselor, I was in charge of a reptile-searching crew of twelve lively second graders. Rolling over logs on a hot summer day could have meant discovering a drowsing garter snake, but in our case it meant unearthing an angry nest of “bees.” One poor lad had an infuriated insect fly up his shirt to jab him with multiple stings. Chaos certainly ensued but no one was allergic (more on that later) and everyone enjoyed an animated story of adventure at day’s end. The reason I tell this story is not to conjure fear, but because of a comment made by a wisened, veteran naturalist who, at the staff meeting where we shared details for the incident report, said, “Let’s not call them bees. Let’s call them by their proper identification: yellow jackets.” This comment got me thinking about how misunderstood and misidentified yellow and black striped insects are. While bees and wasps are indeed grouped together in the insect order Hymenoptera (meaning membrane wing), they vary from one another in several striking ways.


Click to enlarge.

The insects on the left side of this image are bees. They have hairy bodies and while they can sting (females only), they do so mainly as a way of protecting themselves or their hives or nests. They are both pollen and nectar feeders and thus, have pollen baskets on their hind legs. While both live in eusocial societies made up of a queen, female workers, and a few males, their population numbers differ. A honey bee hive can house up to 60,000 bees, compared to the bumble’s nest which is often only 50-400 bees. Interestingly, bumble bees do create honey – but only enough to feed their young. It is stored in a wax “honey pot” in their underground burrow.

The insects on the right are wasps. Their bodies are smooth and armored, and the thorax and abdomen are separated by a marked waistline – called a petiole. They are both predatory scavengers who will eat other insects, and yellow jackets will scavenge for meat, fruit, and other human foods – which explains why they often visit trash cans and picnics. Because of their predatory nature, they are more inclined to be aggressive and likely to sting (although some claim paper wasps are more docile). Yellow jackets tend to nest underground or under logs or brush piles – hence our ill-fated snake hunt – while paper wasps build aerial, paper pulp tubes on eaves and other structures. By the way, it’s the bald-face hornet who makes the grey, papery nest balls that hang from tree branches. One further note of distinction between these wasps – if you dare to get close enough – the paper wasp is the only one in its family (Vespidae) with orange antenna.

Fore more detailed info on the differences between these species, check out these sites: The American Honey Queen (who, for the year 2016, is from Wisconsin!), Wikipedia comparison chart, or use to make of your own comparisons or try these: bee vs. wasp or yellow jacket vs. paper wasp.


Bee mimics – none of these are bees! Click to enlarge.

To further confuse the yellow-black-striped issue, bees and wasps are not the only insects to use this coloration pattern. Some flies, beetles, and moths employ Batesian mimicry to imitate oft-feared bees and wasps and reap the benefits of their colored warning system. Flies are the most common bee mimics. The best way to tell them apart: bees and wasps have four wings, flies have two; and bees antennae are elbowed while fly antennae are short, hairlike or indistinguishable. These pictures are from LaRose Forest Photos – check out their gallery of mimics in the insect world, or get detailed information on determining mimics from The Bee Spotter.

Did you know…

Scientists who study bees are called “melittologists.”

There are over 250 species of bumble bees in the world – 21 of which live in the United States. One of our favorite naturalists at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center likes to impress youngsters by petting bumbles bees. He has a trick, though. He writes: “I have a few simple ways of identifying male bumble bees. First, time of year (which is pretty close to now, meaning August) when the males hatch. Second, behavior: Each male establishes a territory which it defends against other males that stray into his turf. He will even come over and look YOU over if you’re in his turf. Yes, I’ve had this happen to me. Once satisfied that you are not a threat, he lands on the tallest plant in his territory. Third, eyeballs: Once I suspect that a bumblebee is a male, I look at the eyeballs. The eyes on males are noticeably “bug-eyed,” being rounder and sticking out further than the female’s. Now, I get close enough to catch it by hand (getting close enough is the hard part). Or I use a net if I happen to have one handy. And, of course, the male bumblebee does not sting because stingers are modified female appendages (ovipositors) that males lack.”

Find more male vs female characteristics from Bee Spotter or from Xerces Society. Or, learn about bumble bees of the eastern US with this downloadable field guide.

You may have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder and still wonder at the cause. This beautiful, award winning film from 2011 does a wonderful job of explaining. While “Queen of the Sun” certainly weaves a frightening tale of why Colony Collapse Disorder is devastating to life on this planet, it also provides inspiration on ways you can help (including the idea listed in the “For Families” section below). Check out the movie trailer here and watch the full length version on DVD or YouTube.

To Do This Month:

Venom Infographic

Venom Infographic

Learn how to treat a sting and how to recognize an allergic reaction – anaphylactic shock. Just as bee and wasp characteristics are similar yet different, so too is their venom. Both use enzymes that break down cell barriers and allow the venom to spread, histamines that cause pain and itching, and both emit pheromones to alert other bees and wasps that they’re under attack. The major toxin in bee venom is melittin whereas wasps employ wasp kinin. This means people who are allergic to one are often not allergic to the other. To treat non-allergic victims, make sure the stinger is removed, wash with soap and water, reduce swelling with an ice compress, and treat itching with an antihistamine cream, or a baking soda-water paste. Watch for signs of an allergic reaction, including difficulty breathing, dizziness or a swollen tongue. These signal a need for emergency care and, if available, the administration of epinephrine. Learn more about insect venom using this cool infographic at left from Compound Interest. Also get more information on sting treatment from WebMD.

Find pollinators galore at Olbrich Gardens this month – stop in for a Guided Garden Stroll on Sundays at 1:30pm and 3pm, or catch the last days of Blooming Butterflies now through August 7th. Olbrich’s Daylily Sale and Dahlia Show are August 20-21 and GLEAM, the nighttime light and art installation, opens on August 26th.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

August Events

Our Favorite Bee Books

Egg Carton Bumble Bee

Sign up to receive these blog posts monthly

For Educators:

Insect Ambassadors

Did you know educators can book the UW-Madison’s Insect Ambassadors to come into your classrooms as a supplement to any insect unit? Volunteer docents (college students) bring mounted insect collections as well as live Walking Sticks and Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches for children to investigate. The Insect Ambassadors also provide an extensive list of classroom activities, citizen science projects, and suggested reading to round out the experience.

You can also check out for free downlaods of annotated drawings and insect life cycle info sheets.

Or, go explore your school grounds, local school forest, or a Nature Net site to look for insects. Collection devices as simple as up-cycled lunchroom containers are really all you need. Upon your return, check out or UW-Madison Entomology Department’s Insect ID website to discover what you’ve collected and learn more about each species.

For Families:

Insect Hotel

As more people recognize the importance of wild-living bees who pollinate our fruits and veggies and whose populations are in decline, ideas on how to help them continue to pop up. One threat to bee health is food availability – and more specifically food variety. Just as spinach is a healthy food for humans, if we were to eat only spinach we would become ill. So too with bees who are often introduced to monoculture croplands with little or no variety. While pollen and nectar abound, if it is from only one plant, the bees suffer from malnutrition and become weak. To offset this trend, some farmers, neighbors of farmers, and even urban landscapers are working to install pollinator gardens which provide food diversity and offer bees an alternative source of food.

Insect Hotel

Insect Hotel

Other insect advocates build insect hotels to encourage beneficial insects’ success by supplying protection from winter weather and from predatory species. Insect hotels are human-made structures filled with natural materials that entice insects like wasps, solitary bees, and even ladybugs and butterflies to take up a home near your garden where they become guardians of your produce by devouring aphids, flies, slugs and other garden pests. Check out this stellar version from blogster Vintage with Laces or find out how to build your own from this DIY from InHabitat.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator and supports all children and their families and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.