Wasp or Bee? And What Sort Of Bee?
Bumblebees, Honeybees and Solitary Bees
People Just Can’t Tell The Difference
One problem which pest controllers and beekeepers face is that many people today simply cannot tell the difference between wasps and bees and many more still cannot differentiate between various types of bees.
This is a major problem indeed in the spring and summer as pest controllers turn out to ‘wasps’ nests’ which turn out to be harmless solitary bees and later in the spring both pest controllers and beekeepers turn out to a ‘honeybee swarm’ which turn out to be bumblebees and of no use to a beekeeper.
Much of this problem I lay firmly at the door of our education system over the last forty years or so, the nature
rambles which I enjoyed at school as a boy have been sacrificed to health and safety and when depicting bees and wasps in children’s books they always tend to show something looking like a cuddly bumblebee rather than an accurate depiction.
This has led to generations of people who simply cannot tell a wasp from a bee, or bumblebees from honeybees.
So how can we help people differentiate between wasps and bees and avoid unnecessary call out charges.
Well in north west Britain time of year is the first clue.
Knowing a little of the biology of these species helps us identify them.
At the end of each year wasps’ nests produce new queens which hibernate for the winter before commencing nest construction the following spring. All other wasps die off and only the queens survive the winter.
As the weather warms, normally in late March or April the new wasp queens, which mated in the autumn before hibernating, start to build new nests.
They chew rotting wood, mixing it with saliva to create ‘wasp paper’ from which she forms a small nest about the size of a golf ball.
Inside this tiny nest she lays around twenty eggs and these she tends as they first hatch into larvae before pupating and emerging as adult wasps.
The queen then remains in the nest laying eggs whilst these workers take over nest construction and tending of the wasps to come.
All this takes several weeks and so in our area, roughly from Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire and Cheshire you will
not see wasps before late May at the very earliest and often not until after mid-June.
A wasps’ nest is for one year only and is never used a second time.
Certainly anything you see before late may in our area will be bees of some sort.
Honeybees are often the first to be seen, often flying on warm days as early as February. The reason for this is that unlike wasps the entire colony survives the winter and there is no need for a build-up or lead-in time like wasps.
This is the reason that honeybees make honey, to sustain the colony through winter.
Honeybees look superficially more like wasps than bumblebees but are easily recognised as more hairy than wasps, less of a pinched waist and pollen sacks on their legs. Honeybees also fly with their legs dangling down unlike wasps.
Honeybees are the only ones out of all the bees and wasps to ‘swarm’.
In late spring or summer as the number of bees in a hive start to increase and the internal temperature of the hive increases they will create new queens.
On a warm day they will begin the swarming process. Several thousand bees will depart the nest with a queen and go seeking a new home. This can be very dramatic, the swarm can be heard in flight and they will often gather on the branch of a tree whilst their scouts seek a suitable place to set up home.
Many people mistake these swarms for wasps’ nests but wasps cannot swarm, neither can they ‘move’ home!
In this swarm stage they are easy to gather up and beekeepers will collect them and rehouse them in their hives.
The problem with honeybees is that they will often set up homes in air-bricks or chimneys where they can be difficult and costly to remove.
Bumblebees have a similar life cycle to wasps in that only the queens survive the winter and must build new nests afresh every spring. However unlike wasps which rely on grubs and aphids they eat pollen which is available to them earlier and so bumblebee nests tend to be earlier than wasps.
Bumblebees are the big fat bees which look as though they shouldn’t be able to fly.
A bumbelee colony is very much smaller than a wasps’ nest, 300 bees being a large colony.
We now have a new bumblebee in our area, the Tree Bumblebee, which unfortunately, unlike our native species which are docile is quite aggressive, especially in the vicinity of its nest.
This is a very early bee indeed and will be found as early as April, often nesting in bird boxes.
Fortunately it is an easy bee to recognise with its distinctive white tail.
Bumblebees do not produce honey and are of no use to a beekeeper. Please check carefully before calling a beekeeper or a pest controller as you may get charged for a false call out.
Other than the Tree Bumblebee there is no need to take action and the nests can safely be left alone.
These are the bees which cause more of a headache for pest controllers than any of the other.
They are called solitary bees because unlike the wasps, bumblebees and honeybees they do not build social nests. They each lay their eggs in small holes, often gaps in mortar or holes in walls.
Superficially they look more like wasps than any other bees but are often sighted way before a wasps’ nest would be possible.
They are usually abundant in April, May and June and can often be seen investigating weep holes in window frames and air-bricks.
Although they can be seen in large numbers at this time of year they are quite harmless , having no sting, and no action is necessary or possible.
As they do not build nests it is impossible to destroy their nests and there is absolutely no reason to try and harm them in any circumstances.
As a rough guide here is a monthly chart of what might be sighted in any given month. Please remember that this chart only reflects activity in our area, Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire and Cheshire, and that timings may vary in other parts of the country.
Exceptionally early or late springs may also alter the timing.