A Bee or Not a Bee, that is the Question

There’s a whole lot of buzzing going on – bees are busy doing their thing, zipping from flower to flower, moving pollen from one to the other, bringing the promise of plump peaches, tasty tomatoes, and humdinger zucchini. There are also ones that might be drilling little holes in the eaves of your roof or fabricating what looks like up-side down mud pies, others stealthily cutting perfect circles in your rose leaves, and those laggards hitching a ride on your arm while you have a sweaty jog with your dog.  These don’t look like the easily recognizable honeybee. Are they bees?

Bees, ants, and a number of other insects collectively called wasps are members of the membrane-winged insects. Many are social insects, like true ants, but the majority are solitary.

A few general features help distinguish bees and wasps – bees usually have very hairy bodies for pollen collecting, wasps tend to have few hairs to none at all. Wasps have more elongated bodies, longer legs, and often a pinched-looking waist, whereas bees appear more compact.  Most bees purposefully collect pollen; wasps are predominantly carnivores and may be incidental pollinators as they seek their prey. Social bees make nests of wax; most social wasps make nests of paper.  Only the honeybee produces a perennial hive.  Other bees and wasps may be social or solitary, but their hives die out at the end of the season, and only the queen survives, seeking a place to produce a new hive in the coming season.  

Some of the more common types of solitary bees include:

Carpenter bees: Inch-long industrious bee drills perfectly round holes in the wooden eaves of buildings, creating tunnels in which to lay eggs.

Mining or digger bees: About the size of honeybees or smaller; some are brightly striped, others are a shiny metallic green. They nest in the ground and large numbers of these bees may nest near one another if soil conditions are right. Though they may be considered a nuisance, mining bees are not aggressive and seldom, if ever, sting.

Leafcutter bees: Stout-bodied, black bees about the size of a honeybee, and are important pollinators of wildflowers, fruits, vegetables, and other crops. They cut the leaves of almost any broadleaf deciduous plant to construct nests in soil cavities or holes (usually made by other insects), in wood, and in plant stems.

Sweat bees: They get their name for their habit of landing on people and licking the perspiration from the skin for the salt. Most are black or brown, though some species are bright metallic green or brassy yellow.

Knowing what’s buzzing around your garden can help you make choices about what, if any, control measures you want to take.  Keep in mind that, in spite of their nasty reputations, yellowjackets can be beneficial, preying on many insects we consider pests.  Also, as their colonies are not perennial, you may choose to simply wait until the colony dies out in late fall or early winter. The nest will slowly deteriorate from weather or from attack by hungry birds. 

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