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.