While sitting outside on a summer 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 the majority of these highly beneficial insects are not aggressive and stings are easily avoided.
- There are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world, 800 in Texas and 13 in Southeast Texas.
- The annual value of native bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated to be $15 billion.
- Vespa scooters are named after wasps – vespa means “wasp” in Italian.
- Only female wasps and bees have stingers.
What do they eat?
Bees feed on nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants.
Solitary wasps feed mainly on nectar. Social wasps are omnivores, eating fruit, nectar and carrion such as dead insects.
What eats them?
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.
Why do we need them?
Whether you think of bees and wasps as friend or foe, they play a critical role in the health of our environment. As pollinators, we rely on these insects to transfer pollen amongst many crops including cotton, fruit trees, melons, berries, vegetables and livestock crops such as alfalfa and clover. Even onions rely on pollinators for fertilization!
Beyond sustaining our food supply, they play a role in providing food for other wildlife. Bees and wasps are responsible for the production of seeds, nuts, berries and fruit that many other species depend on.
They also help provide shelter for those wildlife. 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.
The most common varieties include carpenter, squash, leafcutter, sweat, mason and bumblebees.
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. Due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease, the population of honey bees has declined nearly 60% in the last 50 years.
Paper wasps, Mud Daubers and Yellowjackets are some of the wasps you may encounter around the home. Distinct color patterns, smoother, thinner bodies, and a reputation for ill-temperament distinguish wasps from their more beloved counterpart, 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 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 find yourself under attack, cover your head and run away quickly into a building or protected area.
Wasps 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, or fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, their populations have seen a significant decline in the last few decades. If you enjoy the ‘fruits’ of their labor, help them out by providing native nectar plants, some shelter, and most importantly, eliminating the use of pesticides at home. These beneficial insects will show their gratitude in the form of fewer pests in your garden next spring.
For more information, check out these resources:
- Montgomery County Beekeepers Association – Local resource for beekeepers
- Native Plant Society of Texas: Native bees in Texas – Identification of common species
- Texas Apiary Inspection Service – How to build shelter for bees
- Plant for Pollinators – Native plant lists and tips to create habitat at home