Creature Feature: Bees and Wasps

While sitting outside on a spring afternoon you hear a low buzzing sound. On alert and ready to run you scan the area, anticipating an attack from an angry insect. A reaction many of us are guilty of, but why? How many times have you actually been stung and let’s be honest, could it have been avoided? Bees and wasps are feared by many but they need not be. The vast majority of these highly beneficial insects are not aggressive and stings are easily avoided.  

Whether you think of bees and wasps as friend or foe, they play a critical role in the health of our environment. Beyond sustaining our food supply by pollinating billions of crop plants each year, they provide essential needs, like shelter and food, for other wildlife. Bees are responsible for the production of seeds, nuts, berries and fruit that many other species depend on. Bees and wasps themselves are an important food source for thousands of species of birds, spiders, insects such as dragonflies and praying mantises, and larger predators such as skunks, foxes, weasels, mice, badgers and even bears.  

They also help provide shelter for those predators and many other species. By pollinating a variety of plants, trees and grasses they help maintain healthy forests and grasslands and provide nesting and protective spaces for other insects, birds and small mammals. There is no doubting the importance they play in beautifying our flower garden and bringing our favorite foods to the table, but let’s not forget all the other reasons bees and wasps are so important.     

Bumblebees do not store large quantities of nectar and pollen, like honey bees. Instead they rely on a continuous food supply from spring to fall.

Bees

There are more than 16,000 species of bees in the world, 800 in Texas and 13 in Southeast Texas.  The most common varieties include carpenter, squash, leafcutter, sweat, mason and bumblebees.  All wonderful pollinators, we rely on these native bees to transfer pollen amongst many local crops including cotton, fruit trees, melons, berries, vegetables and livestock crops such as alfalfa and clover.  Even onions rely on pollinators for fertilization!

The annual value of native bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated to be $3 billion.

There are a variety of places bees prefer to nest, depending on the species. 70% of all bee species dwell underground. The rest find their shelter in bare ground, weathered wood, or a honeycomb. When cleaning up around the yard, keep in mind that bees need a variety of places to live so leave some options for them to call home. Some bees are solitary dwellers (carpenter bees) and others live in social groups (bumblebees). The most familiar and well-known hive-dwelling bee is the honey bee.

A nest is the proper term to describe a colony that has created a natural cavity, usually hanging and exposed. A hive is a man-made structure used to house a honey bee nest.

The European honey bee has caught a lot of media attention in recent years due to a steep decline in population. Brought over in the 1600s, honey bees have spread to nearly every corner of North America and play a significant role in the pollination of hundreds of commercial crops. Due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease, the population of honey bees has declined nearly 60% in the last 50 years.

Good news! You can help. Reduce the use of pesticides in your yard and garden, plant native nectar producing plants (groupings of the same plant are easier for bees to find), and provide various shelter options. These simple steps will go a long way in supporting bees and all pollinators. For more information on how you can help pollinators visit our Plant for Pollinators page.

Beekeeping is permitted within the boundaries of The Woodlands Township. State regulations do apply. The Texas Apiary Inspection Service (TAIS) oversees the State regulations regarding beekeeping.

Wasps

Distinct color patterns, smoother, thinner bodies, and a reputation for ill-temperament distinguish wasps from their more beloved counterparts, bees. That bad reputation, though, is not entirely deserved.

True, an un-barbed stinger allows a wasp to sting repeatedly (a honey bee must leave its stinger in the victim, causing it to die shortly after). However, the vast majority of the time, wasps will sting only when they or their nests are threatened. If you keep a safe distance from nests and don’t swat (this only excites them more) you’ve nothing to worry about. If you do find yourself under attack, cover your head and run away quickly into a building or protected area.

Did you know that wasp venom contains a pheromone that causes other wasps to become more aggressive? A good reason not to swat at one near its nest or other wasps.

Even though we loath the sting of a wasp, they are one of the most beneficial insects when it comes to controlling pest populations. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed on by a species of wasp, either for a meal or as a host for its parasitic larvae. So, having wasps in your garden just may solve your tomato hornworm problem!

If your wasp or bee population has gotten a little too comfortable around the house, taking up residence in a wall of your home or storage shed, the best solution is to have the hive removed by a licensed structural pest control operator (the Texas Department of Agriculture maintains a list). Spraying or improper removal most often results in the site being re-inhabited. Lingering pheromones and honeycomb residue will draw them back making proper sealing of access points a critical step. Licensed operators will also work with a local hive owner to relocate bees before treating the nest. Many will not relocate wasps. Instead, the wasps are exterminated and the nest is removed.

Bees and wasps are a critical component of a healthy ecosystem. They benefit the local gardener, the commercial farmer, and all of us who enjoy a cup of coffee, chocolate bars, and fruits and vegetables. If you enjoy the ‘fruits’ of their labor, then help them out by providing them native nectar plants, some shelter, and most importantly, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides at home. These beneficial insects will show their gratitude in the form of fewer pests in your garden this spring.

Questions? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

For more information, visit our wildlife page or check out these other resources:

Montgomery County Beekeepers Association

Native Plant Society of Texas: Native bees in Texas

Texas Apiary Inspection Service

Creature Feature: Feral Hogs

Have some unusual “alterations” to your landscape occurred overnight? Trampled flower beds, plowed up lawn, tufts of hair and mud stuck to fence posts and garden sheds? No, Bigfoot hasn’t been out for some midnight gardening. You’ve likely been visited by feral hogs.

Whether you’re dealing with these unwanted neighbors or you just want to know more about the history, biology and impacts of the invasive Sus scrofa, be sure to attend one of these upcoming lectures by a State expert.

Upcoming Events

Kick off the Spring Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series with Dr. John Tomecek, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Dr. Tomecek is a leading expert in the State on feral hog biology and control. His agency’s mission is both scientific and educational, providing landowners and governmental bodies with support on the identification, management and abatement of damages from feral hogs.

Walk in the Woods: Feral hogs in a Suburban Landscape

Wednesday, February 5 from 7 to 8 p.m.

The Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park

Free Lecture. Space is limited. Register online here

Can’t make it on the 5th? Don’t worry. Join The Woodlands G.R.E.E.N. for the next Going GREEN lecture, Feral Swine: Challenges and Control. Chris Watts, Wildlife Damage Management Biologist with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension will walk through the history of invasive feral swine in Texas, their ecological and economic impacts, wildlife-human interactions, and urban feral swine management practices and strategies.

Going GREEN: Feral Swine Challenges and Control

Thursday, February 20 from 7 to 8 p.m.

Houston Advanced Research Center

Free Lecture. Space is limited. Register online here.

Feral hogs don’t have great eyesight, but make up for it with excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell

Let’s talk hogs

Feral hogs were likely first introduced to Texas by Spanish explorers in the 1600’s. Over the ensuing 300+ years their numbers have grown dramatically. Over 1.5 million feral hogs are estimated to now roam the State, becoming one of our most destructive invasive species. Feral hogs cost the State some $400 million in damages annually by wreaking havoc on crops and lawns. They also have a tremendous impact on native plants and wildlife. Rooting, trampling and wallowing activity destroys vegetation and destabilizes riparian areas. This leads to soil compaction and erosion, spread of invasive vegetation, water quality degradation, and disruption of the nutrient cycle.

The secret to their success is multi-fold: they are highly intelligent, impressively fecund and lack natural predators. They’re also remarkably adaptable, as more and more residents of urban areas, like The Woodlands, are realizing.

Most human interactions with feral hogs are limited to an uprooted lawn. Feral hogs have a keen sense of smell and use it to avoid contact with humans whenever possible. However, as with most wildlife, feral hogs will defend themselves if cornered and females may aggressively protect their young. They can grow quite large, up to 400 pounds and are more powerful than their domestic counterparts. Should you encounter a feral hog, be calm and move slowly away from it. Do not corner or provoke the animal. If you see adults with young piglets, leave them alone.

What you can do

If feral hogs are impacting your property there are steps you can take.

  • First, reduce access where possible. Address any holes or gaps in your fencing and cordon off garden areas. A fence height of 36 inches is enough to keep feral hogs. Make sure fence is flush with the ground to prevent access.
  • For areas that can’t be fenced, remove food sources, like acorns, fruits and vegetables, and bulbs. They also eat grasses, forbs, roots and tubers, mushrooms, insects, earthworms, reptiles, amphibians, carrion (dead animals), live mammals and birds.
  • Don’t water your yard in the winter. Lawns should go dormant (brown) in the winter to allow the roots to grow deep and strong. Watering in the winter not only weakens your grass, making it more susceptible to disease, the green leaves are a major attractant to feral hogs.
  • If you encounter a hog during the day, you will likely be able to scare it off with loud noise but you’re likely to see it back at night in search of more food.
  • Currently no chemical repellents are labeled for use.
  • Motion-activated sprinklers and ultrasonic animal repellents have also not been proven effective.

While feral hogs may be killed or trapped on private property without a State of Texas license or permit with landowner consent, discharge of firearms of any kind within The Woodlands Township is not permitted.

For more information on feral hogs, check out the Wildlife section of the Environmental Services Department website.

For more resources or to report feral hogs that have been sighted in the area, please contact the following:

Reach out to Environmental Services with questions or comments at enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Bird is the word

Grab your binoculars and guide.  Winter on the Texas Coast is a great time for bird watching.

With more than 600 species of birds documented in Texas, an afternoon outside in the Lone Star State can easily provide a rewarding bird watching experience for all. Whether you’re a novice or have decades of experience, bird watching offers something for everyone from an excuse to spend time outside, travel more or practice your photography skills. More than 20 million Americans enjoy this hobby; now might be just the time to try it out yourself.

In 2016, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 45 million people nationwide purposefully watched birds, making roughly 1 out of 7 Americans birdwatchers

Consider yourself warned, though; birding can be addictive.  “Birders” spend $41 billion annually on travel, lodging, food and equipment. Many travel great distances just to see that one elusive species, plan vacations around migration patterns, trek through difficult landscapes, and invest in the best equipment. If you’re new to bird watching you probably aren’t ready to splurge on high end binoculars or hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to chase a lead. Don’t despair, there are plenty of opportunities to view our feathered friends at your own pace and price. Simply walking outside and observing can offer plenty of reward.

That said, a few simple tools will make your birding more effective, even a cheap pair of binoculars will make a big difference. As leaves fall off of trees, take advantage of the bare branches which provide great perches for resting birds. What’s that?  A small red bird, with a black mask, hopping from branch to branch.  Can you identify it?  Take some photographs  or write down details, like size, color and distinct markings or make a quick sketch in a notebook.  Identification apps like Merlin Bird ID and Audubon Bird Guide are great tools for identifying birds and collecting data that can then be shared as part of citizen science efforts. Now that you’ve identified your red bird as a male northern cardinal, you are officially a birdwatcher!

Houston Audubon has a great resource on local and migratory birds around Houston

If you build it, they will come

Birdwatching can be as simple as observing with the naked eye. It’s fun as an individual or with groups. And it can range from casual hobby to fierce passion.  When you‘re ready to go beyond just ‘watching’ know that there are several ways to actively bird right in your own community.

Create a bird-friendly environment in your yard, patio or balcony. Providing food, water and shelter for winged visitors provides an ecological benefit while also creating great birdwatching opportunities right outside your window. Depending on the species you wish to attract, the habitat should include a variety of trees, grasses, and shrubs to create an inviting space for birds to live, hunt, and raise their young.  A general rule of thumb is “more native plants mean more insects, which leads to more birds” (ecology professor and author, Doug Tallamy). If using pesticides in your garden to control the insect population, you are removing the main food source for many birds.  Adult bluebirds will eat up to 2,000 insects in one day and gather more when they have a nest of chicks to feed.  A yard full of insects is like an all you-can-eat buffet for birds.

Providing shelter and food are two very important considerations if you are hoping to attract specific species to your yard. For example, did you know that red-bellied woodpeckers are attracted to suet feeders? For more tips on attracting local birds to your yard, check out this article on the Environmental Services blog. Looking for the right bird house to attract purple martins? Plans to build the perfect birdhouse  to attract your favorite feathered friends can be found here.

December is a great time to get your Purple Martin houses prepared for their arrival in January

Beyond the back yard

Filled with local and migratory birds in search of winter sustenance, southeast and coastal Texas offers a number of prime bird watching spots, several within a short drive of The Woodlands.  When you’re ready to venture out, be sure to check with the Houston Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Map for nearby birding hotspots.

Hit the road early to enjoy a full day of birding and be sure to remember the essentials for a day of birdwatching: binoculars, sunscreen, hat, water, snacks, a notebook and pen. 

Don’t forget that the annual Texas Christmas Bird Count takes place December 14, 2019 – January 5, 2020.  For more information on how you can participate and take part in this long standing holiday program that collects data from around the state, be sure to check out this year’s event page.


The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department presents ‘An Introduction to Bird Watching in The Woodlands’. Join us Thursday, November 14 at 6 p.m. at Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) for a presentation by Alisa Kline, naturalist at Buffalo Bayou Park. To register online, view here.

Questions? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov or call 281-210-3800

Give a hoot

Mysterious, spooky, wise, lovable. Depending on who you ask, owls have quite the reputation. With four of the 19 North American species found in our area – Eastern Screech, Great Horned, Barred and Barn – , it’s likely there are a few living in the woods near you. But what do we really know about these birds of prey? Here are 10 fun facts to unravel some of the mystery surrounding these amazing creatures.

Hunting Facts

Fact #1 Incredible hunters, owls have super-powered hearing that allows them to track prey under leaves, dirt and snow. Their hearing is especially sensitive to high-frequency sounds, like rodent squeaks. Studies have shown that Barn Owls are able to catch their prey in absolute darkness just by picking up the sound of rustling leaves.

Fact #2 Owls can turn their neck up to 135 degrees in either direction – 270 degrees of rotation! 14 neck bones – 7 more than humans – allow owls to swivel back and forth effortlessly. Most mammals would be hindered by the lack of blood flow to the brain and eyes, if they were able to rotate that far. However, owls have a unique type of reservoir system at the base of their head which prevents damage to blood vessels while rotating.

Fact #3 Owls make virtually no noise when they fly. Their wing feathers have comb-like serrations that break turbulence into smaller currents and reduce sound. The soft down feathers also help to muffle noise.

Fact #4 An owl’s eye is not a true eye “ball”. Instead, its tube-shaped and doesn’t move which requires them to rotate their entire head to look to the side. This inconvenience comes with an advantage, though. The binocular vision helps them focus on their prey and boosts their depth perception. Owls may have the most efficient vision of any animal. Depending on the species, their vision is 35 to 100 times greater than humans.

Watch this video to see why owls are such excellent hunters

Food Facts

Fact #5 Owls swallow their food whole and then cough up the carcass. Using their strong talons to crush their prey, owls swallow small animals whole. If too large, they use their beaks and talons to rip prey into smaller pieces. Nourishing parts are digested and parts that can’t be digested, like fur and bones, become compacted into a pellet which the owl later regurgitates

Fact #6

Great at pest control. A single barn owl family will eat up to 3000 rodents within 4 months. A single owl can eat 50 pounds of gophers in a year. Farmers frequently install owl nesting boxes to help with pest control. It’s cheaper and safer than poison, which kills many owls and other predators each year as the poison passes on from the prey.

Fact #7 Rodents aren’t the only thing on the menu. Owls eat insects, earthworms, fish, crawfish, amphibians, other birds and small animals. Occasionally, owls will attack and eat smaller owls. Larger owls, like the Great Horned Owl will attack a Barred Owl, which have been known to attack the Western Screech Owl.

For more ways to help owls, visit here

Fun Facts

Fact #8 Owls have been depicted throughout history, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to the 30,000 year old cave paintings in France. Ancient Greece recognized owls as a symbol of learning and knowledge and were often seen as a companion to Athena – goddess of wisdom. Unfortunately, owls were seen by many cultures throughout history as a symbol of impending death or evil and affiliated with witches or the unnatural. This fear led many cultures to attempt to rid themselves of nearby owl populations.

Fact #9 Not all owls hoot. Barn Owls make hissing sounds, Eastern Screech Owls whinny like a horse and Saw-Whet Owls are named after the sound they make which is similar to the sound of a whetstone sharpening a saw. To hear the various sounds and calls from owls across North America, check out the Audubon Owls Guide for your phone and I.D. owls on the go.

Fact #10 Owls come in all sizes. The largest owl in North America is the Great Gray Owl which can grow as tall as 32“. The smallest is the Elf Owl – 5-6” tall and about a mere 1 ½ ounces in weight. Here in east Texas, you may come across one of the largest owls in North America, the Great Horned Owl. At almost 2’ tall, the Great Horned Owl is adaptable to many habitats, including city neighborhoods, forested areas, coastal areas, deserts and mountains. Listen for the deep, low hoo, hoohoo, hoo that sounds similar to a dove’s call but is deeper in tone.

To contact Environmental Services Department, email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov or call 281-210-3800

Just in time for Halloween: vampires, zombies and other ghoulish bugs.

Good night, sleep tight; don’t let the bed bugs bite

While this rhyme has been sung to loved ones since the 1880’s, the nocturnal creatures it refers to have been feeding on sound sleepers since the time of the pharaohs.

Sheltering in the nooks and crannies of baseboards, floorboards, or even along the seam of the mattress, bed bugs emerge at night to feed on unsuspecting dreamers. Lured by carbon dioxide and body heat, the little wingless vampires crawl along your body in search of uncovered skin to draw their weekly feast. Ten minutes later, engorged and sated, they return to the shelter of the box spring, or a loose flap of wallpaper, and digest. Take a Deep Look at these bloodsuckers if you dare.

Attack of the body snatchers

The prospect of being fed upon in the dead of night might make your skin crawl, yet it is a far sight better than what can happen to a tomato horn worm in broad daylight.

A teeny, tiny wasp – only an eighth of an inch long – will lay eggs just under the hornworm’s skin. The eggs hatch inside the caterpillar and start eating its insides while it’s still alive! Larvae chew their way to the outside and spin cocoons that look like white insect eggs along the hornworm’s back. Weakened, the hornworm soon dies, unleashing 50 or more wasps to parasitize other tomato-destroying caterpillars. Purdue University has produced a brief look at the “alien encounter” for your viewing displeasure.

Photos used with permission from the Galveston County Master Gardener Association

Superhero bugs to the rescue!

For everything that creeps and crawls, there is another thing that stalks and eats it. Spiders are a formidable foe, ensnaring flies in sticky webs, chasing down crickets, or ambushing ants.

Whatever the method, most spiders end the fight by injecting venom into their hapless prey through fangs at the end of their “jaws”. All spiders are on a liquid diet – that narrow waist makes it impossible for solid food to pass into their abdomen. Just like in Arachnophobia, these eight-legged predators must pump their prey full of enzymes to suck the resulting juices, leaving behind an empty husk. Fortunately, if you are not a fan of spiders, there are even spider-eating spiders such as the cunningly clever, Portia.

For more spectacularly spooky tales from the creepy crawly world of bugs, join us for Walk in the Woods, October 10, 2019. Registration is required for this FREE lecture.  For more information or to register, visit the Walk in the Woods website here.

For more information on programs offered by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment