The Difference Between Bees, Wasps and Hornets

What’s the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? You may be surprised to learn that some are masquerading as imposters. Take yellow jackets for instance, whose yellow and black stripes speak bee when in fact they are wasps. In the natural world, though, all three serve a purpose. So before you reach for the chemical spray, please see below. 

Recently I was asked to represent my garden club at a function in Maryland. Our speaker was Kerry Wixted, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Her talk, entitled Bees, Bats and Snakes: Oh My! was as amusing as it was informative. I’ll save the bats and snakes for later. What follows are some highlights of her lecture.

THE MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEES, WASPS AND HORNETS

Aside from stinging ability, there are some key differences between bees, wasps and hornets. Most notably, bees feed on pollen and nectar while wasps and hornets feed mainly on insects (although many also pollinate.) Only bees produce honey.

Let’s start with bees.

BEES

Bees are highly valued for their pollination abilities. Without them, much of our agriculture would disappear.

A honeybee – dense fur helps it collect more pollen

Perhaps the best known of all bees, honeybees are typically golden and furry (the better to catch pollen with). They also come equipped with pollen baskets attached to their hind legs. Honeybees die when they sting. Bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps and hornets do not.

In fact, if a honeybee decides to sting you, it’s a conscious choice to sacrifice his or her own life for the hive. Once the barbed stinger is embedded in your skin, it is wrenched from the bee’s body, and the bee dies.

Honeybees prefer to nest in colonies above ground in tree cavities, rock crevices and boxes designed expressly for them. They make their hives by chewing wax until it becomes soft. Then they form it into a honeycomb.

Honeybees in honeycomb

A subspecies of honeybees, bumblebees like to nest both above and below ground. Their large size and fuzzy bodies make them easy to distinguish. 

Of the over 400 different varieties of bees in Maryland, many prefer to nest in the ground or in wood or crevices. These kind of bees are known as solitary bees, preferring to nest as a family unit; just one female and her offspring, Occasionally, solitary bees will nest close to one another, however, giving the impression of a colony.

Solitary bee inspecting a potential nesting site

The more common solitary bee species in Maryland are mason, squash and sweat bees. These bees are rarely aggressive. And each has its own special relationship with certain types of vegetables and flowers.

WASPS

It may surprise you to know that like bees, wasps are important pollinators. However, they are less efficient, due to having less hair on their bodies. So instead, they prefer to feed mainly on insects, which they use to provide proteins to the larvae in their colony. They do not produce honey. As I mentioned above, yellow jackets are wasps.

Yellow-jacket wasp

Here’s the benefit. In the early summer months, wasps act as a natural pest control, feeding on caterpillars and other insects in the garden. The problem arises later in the summer, though, when the food supply becomes scarce. That’s when they switch to buzzing around garbage cans and picnic lunches. There are currently over 1200 wasp species in Maryland, the most common of which are yellow-jackets and paper wasps.

Swarm of bees

Wasps nest both above and below ground, while yellow-jackets nest in the ground only. For example, some build their nests in old rodent holes, widening them as they develop their hives. Recently, we discovered a hole full of yellow jackets in our Demonstration Garden that sent two team members to the hospital. It’s important to know the difference. 

True to their name, paper wasps make their nests out of a substance similar to paper. They chew wood into a pulp and then stick it together with their saliva to form a honeycomb. These are referred to as paper hives.

Wasp nest

HORNETS

A subspecies of wasps, hornets are the largest in the family. They tend to be more black/brownish and white with little bright color. They can be distinguished from other wasps by their wider heads and rounder abdomens. 

European hornet – notice the lack of visible fur on the body

The only true species of hornet in the United States is the European hornet, also known as the bald-faced hornet. The young eat caterpillars and the adults pollinate flowers. In Maryland, the European hornet is highly prized for its preference for eating cicadas. 

Here’s a key to the bees and wasps pictured in the cover photo:

For more information on how to build nests for native bees, click here for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. Or, to learn more about bees and what they pollinate, click here for my post How To Make Sense of the Buzz In Your Garden.

 

5 Ways To Honor Our Planet On Earth Day

earth1

It’s been a half century now since Earth Day made its debut on April 22, 1970. I still remember the strangeness of being dismissed early from school to clean up litter. At the time, the idea seemed foreign to us, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our trash on the ground. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset. Continue reading

Nurturing Wildlife Habitats: Five Ways To Save the Planet

For many of us, attracting wildlife to our gardens sounds good in theory but fails in practice. Especially when it comes to that four-legged pest the white–tailed deer. However, there are many sound reasons for enticing birds, insects, even small animals back into our yards. It’s not only good for our local ecosystem, but it also keeps our flowers blooming. And it just might be the right thing to do. Continue reading

Seasonal Eating: The Best ‘Warming’ Foods To Try This Winter

cover garlic

Winter has its challenges if, like me, you’re looking for fresh produce. And that makes it hard to resist all those imported fruits and vegetables. Continue reading

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Master Gardener Demo Garden when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. It looked pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed. And the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading

Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time. They’re living proof of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices. Continue reading

What Dirty Old Birds Can Teach Us About Air Pollution

Bird specimens at the Field Museum of Chicago

It couldn’t help but attract my attention; a neat row of old, preserved birds, their soft, feathery chests face-up: some were dark with soot, others by comparison, were clean. All came from an industrial area in the United States called the Rust Belt. That is key to the story. Continue reading

Five Reasons Your Trees Are Failing: A Bartlett Tree Expert Speaks Out

why your trees are failing

Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, North Carolina, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week on why your trees may be failing. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil. Continue reading

Trending In Health: Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)

Most of us are well aware that a walk in the woods is a breath of fresh air; especially if you’re stressed out from city life or the artificial glow of computer screens. But now in a growing trend, people are heading to the woods to experience nature in a completely different way. It’s called forest bathing. Continue reading

Pass The Vinegar, I Need To Water My Plants

After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN

Lack of water is becoming an increasing concern both for human and plant life throughout the world. Now comes the news that scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer under drought conditions. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for that bottle of white vinegar right now to see if my hydrangeas wouldn’t like a swig.

The Study

Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study that showed huge promise for thirsty plants of the future. Researchers revealed that they had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in certain species that sprang into action in times of water stress. By studying the pathway and the chain of chemical reactions within it, the scientists made a surprising discovery. They found they could induce greater drought tolerance in certain plants by growing them in vinegar.

Most of us are familiar with vinegar’s miraculous cleaning and anti-bacterial properties, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.

My hydrangea showing signs of water stress 

A little plant named Arabidopsis

It all started with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress. A relative of cabbage and mustard, this genus of small flowering plants was the first species to have its entire genome sequenced. As a result, it is considered a model organism for studying plant biology.

Perhaps most interestingly, Arabidopsis is also known to exhibit strong drought tolerance. This is due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6. Specifically, the mutation allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.

Microscopic view of anther of Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress

HDA6 acts as a switch

Indeed, initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, which is also the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway is active. While most plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, in times of drought, Arabidopsis switches to this acetate-producing pathway.

Clearly there was something going on. To find out how this switch works in times of water stress, scientists conducted an experiment. They grew normal plants under drought conditions, treating some with water, some with organic acids and others with acetic acid. After 14 days, they measured the results. Surprisingly, 70 percent of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living. Conversely, all of the other plants had died.

Microscopic view of stem epidermis of thale cress showing hairs and stomata

A link between acetate and drought performance

By measuring the amounts of acetate in the Arabidopsis, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate the plants produced and how well they performed under drought conditions. Even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and these species’ tolerance increased, too, when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.

Close-up of rice plant

It goes without saying that the implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to other strategies like genetic engineering. Still, I’m not sure if vinegar will help my hydrangeas survive another scorching Maryland summer, but it’s worth a try. I’ll let you know.