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