Thursday, July 15, 2010

No, They're Not All Bees

collage of yellow jacket wasp-bald faced hornet-european giant hornetTwo things happened yesterday to prompt this post: first, the DC Public Parks hive at the Lederer Youth Garden was wrongfully accused of harboring terrorists, and second, misperceptions about honeybee ferocity are causing nearby jurisdictions to get antsy about bees.

The collage at left depicts three critters which are not honeybees, but are far more likely to sting people than honeybees are—even so, people usually start the fight. They are, from the top, a yellowjacket, a bald-faced hornet, and a European Giant Hornet (here depicted eating a honeybee). I'm picking on the vespids for a particular reason: their lifestyle choices are really close to most humans', and there lies some of the reason for all the conflict.

Honeybees are purely vegetarian, with a stinger only suited to hive and last-ditch self defense. Hornets, wasps, and their kin are primarily hunters of other bugs, using that efficient stinging apparatus all day, every day. Honeybees get everything they need except water from plants, vespids get their protein mostly from other creatures, and if necessary, your picnic meats.
OK, back to the local story.

At Lederer, like at many gardens, there is a lot of hay around to use as mulch. Yellowjackets love to nest in low holes in rotting wood, vegetation, leaf litter, etc. For most of this year, that stack of bales was one heck of a great place to raise a family in their estimation. By mid-summer, when the gardeners got nearer the bottom of the pile, some disagreements arose. I think it is interesting that people have been working in that garden since April, almost every one of them passing through the gate next to the hay bales, but it took until July and the partial destruction of nesting habitat for there to be a problem.

Don't get me wrong: yellowjackets and people cannot share close quarters. It does not work, and I will agree that eradication is necessary in many (if not most) cases, though I will try to get you to use soapy water rather than pesticides.

In the MidAtlantic, if you run into a nest of stinging insects located at less than 6 feet above ground which is not in a human-made hive, you need to leave my honeybee girls out of it! Feral bees will want to be as close to 40 feet up in a hardwood cavity as they can manage. I've seen wild colonies making do at about 8 feet up, but not for very long, I'm afraid.

The second factor, local counties becoming unfriendly to bees and beekeeping, has begun to intensify in recent weeks. Howard County, Maryland recently reinterpreted its zoning to consider beehives as animal shelters, requiring the kinds of setbacks necessary for chicken coops and cow barns, distances dictating a minimum property size of 3.5 acres, with a hive set dead in the middle. Frederick County, Maryland, has recently fallen into a similar situation, where a beekeeper ran afoul of his homeowners association for one reason or another, and they decided to complain about his bees as well. At least in the first case, the complaint was based completely on paralyzing fear.

I understand fear, and its relationship to survival. But survival depends on knowing the difference between what you should fear (And why! And when!) and what you should live with happily. More is not more in the case of fear: you jeopardize both your own life and the viability of the surrounding environment by calling for the eradication of everything you do not understand.

So last year I made a handout which compares bees and the three species above, mostly for presentations to garden clubs and neighborhood associations. I'd like folks to use it if they think it works, comment on anything that doesn't.


Michelle said...

This handout is excellent, I'm going to tweet about it. Everyone needs this as an education. Thanks for sharing!

Robbie said...

I already tweet all your blog posts :) Keep on blogging ...and beekeeping of course ..that's goes without saying

Bee Magic Chronicles for Kids said...

I appreciated this post. I'm currently in the middle of writing a blog 'everything you wanted to know about swarms' and plan to include photos of those other insects so people can get it straight. I'm sure you're as tired as I am hearing people say they got stung by a bee - and we know it wasn't a bee.

In the near future I plan to approach our city officials to have a local bi-law created allowing back yard beehives. Currently we're under provincial guidelines of 90 feet (how many people in the city have a property that big?) We need to do our homework and get backing first though. Vancouver and New York have changed their bi-laws so in some places attitudes are changing.

Jamie said...

I hope you don't mind my asking a random question, but I came across your blog while trying to find out about aggressive bee behaviour (I'm in DC also). I thought you might have some insight as a local beekeeper.

On two separate incidents recently on my front porch in Columbia Heights, people were attacked by individual bumblebees. Definitely not yellow jackets, hornets, wasps... your standard fuzzy bumblebee. Not very big ones either. They dive-bombed myself and several other people over and over, both times finally resulting in a sting, and the bees (surviving both times) kept hovering and attacking in the area after the sting until I killed them.

I read about these African bees that are aggressive, but that seems to not be anywhere near here. Nor do I think there's a hive nearby since I rarely see bees - just the last two times I've seen them at all, they went for blood!

Do you have any idea what this might mean? Is this typical behavior? From everything I have read, and my own experiences in life, it is far from it. I've never been scared or particularly bothered by these critters so this was very surprising and I wonder if it's just a fluke or there's something going on with the DC bees. Thanks for any thoughts you might have!

Phang said...

Hi Jamie --

The most aggressive-seeming bumblebees in our area are male Carpenter bees ( but they do not have stingers.
Bumblebees are also native to North America, and we do not have Africanized honeybees in our area, except in the rare occurrences when these have escaped from ships in harbor or hives passing through our area. These bees are not (yet?) able to survive our winters.
There are more than 20,000 kinds of bee (more than all the birds and mammals combined) so identifying is a challenge even if you have the specimen in front of you. This behavior sounds just plain odd, however, and not at all typical of our area or any that I have heard of.
Most bees are only aggressive when their nests are disturbed or threatened, making me wonder if you have a nest near or on your porch. I've accidentally disturbed bumblebee nests in the past without inciting such behavior, however!
If you got a good look, perhaps this might help:

keith said...

wasps are the biggest threat to the bee population next to humans. because they look like bees, these wasps intrude the bee hive and start the killing from the inside.

Teuvo Vehkalahti said...

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Ramil said...

Your article is really great and I got a lot of information what bees are aggressive and how to keep them at bay. Going to tweet this so my friends will know about this too. Thank you for sharing it to us.

Bumblebee Costume said...

I definitely like honey bee, but I don't the process of doing this thing. I read your blog and it gave me a knowledge about it. Thanks

Abelhas do Sabugi - PB said...

Parabens pelo seu blog.
sou criador de abelhas africanizadas e de abelhas nativas Brasileiras.

achei muito interessante seu trabalho com as abelhas.
Isaac Soares de Medeiros

Beekeeping supplies said...

This is an awesome handout. Its absolutely 100% true that other insects sting! I'm a beekeeping expert and Love to share nature-type information!


BLA said...

Great photos. I'm going to pass your handout to homeowners who think they have bees when they really have wasps.