Bees, Wasps and Hornets: Here’s How To Tell The Difference

Four common bees and wasps

What is the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? This is a question I tend to ask myself, especially when surrounded by swarms of hungry yellow jackets while dining outside. I, for one, know from experience that fuzzy honeybees can make excellent garden companions. But, what’s up with their skinny yellow and black striped brethren? Do they have any value? They seem interested only in stinging me.

Recently I was asked to represent my garden club at a National Capitol Area Garden Club (NCAGC) function in Maryland. I brought a floral arrangement for the brunch, grabbed some homemade quiche and a muffin and sat back to enjoy the lecture. I was thrilled to discover that speaker, Kerry Wixted, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was planning to answer this very question.

Wixted’s talk, entitled Bees, Bats and Snakes: Oh My! was as amusing as it was informative. I’ll save the bats and snakes for later. Here’s what she said.

THE MAIN DIFFERENCES

Aside from stinging ability, there are some important differences between bees, wasps and hornets. Most notably, bees feed on pollen and nectar. Wasps and hornets primarily feed 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 honeybees collect more pollen

Typically golden in color, bees are furry (the better to catch the pollen with). They also come equipped with pollen baskets attached to their hind legs. Bees die when they sting. Bumblebees, wasps and hornets do not.

In fact, if a bee 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 the skin, it is wrenched from the bee’s body, and the bee dies.

Honeybees

Honeybees (perhaps the best known of all bees) nest in colonies above ground in tree cavities, rock crevices and bee boxes. They make their hives by chewing wax until it becomes soft, then forming it into a honeycomb.

Honeybees in honeycomb

Bumblebees, a subspecies of honeybees, nest both above and below ground, where their large size makes them easy to distinguish. (For more information on bumblebees and their quirky habits, click here for bumblebeeconservation.org. 

There are over 400 different varieties of bees in Maryland, many of which prefer to nest in the ground or in wood or crevices. Known as ‘solitary’ bees, they nest as a family unit – just female and offspring, although sometimes they’ll nest close to one another, giving the impression of a colony.

Solitary bee inspecting a potential nesting site

Among the more common bees in Maryland are mason, squash and sweat bees. These solitary bees are rarely aggressive and each has its own special relationships with certain types of vegetables and flowers.

Squash bees nest in the ground, sometimes right under the squash plants that they pollinate. They start their pollinating at sunrise (when flowers open), before most other bees are active. Squash bees resemble honeybees in size and coloration, but they are bigger and bulkier and only feed on plants in the Cucurbita family.

Sometimes in the morning you can open up a squash blossom and see the adult bee sleeping inside,” said Wixsted.

Squash bee

Sweat Bees, also known as Halictid bees, are a diverse group of metallic and non-metallic bees. Most are dull to metallic black, although the species can also be metallic green, blue or purple. Unlike the bulky bumbles and squash bees, sweat bees tend to be slender. Some species are solitary nesters, while others are more social, choosing to nest in colonies.

Green metallic sweat bee

Mason Bees, also known as orchard bees, are out early in the season pollinating fruit trees and early-flowering plants like pieris and forsythia. They’re solitary nesters, preferring to make their homes out of mud that they haul back to their nest. Brownish in color, they are often mistaken for flies.

Red mason bee

WASPS

Like bees, wasps are important pollinators, but they are less efficient, due to having less hair on their bodies. 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.

Yellow-jacket wasp

In the early summer months, wasps act as a natural pest control, feeding on caterpillars and other insects in the garden. However, as the summer wears on and the food supply becomes scarcer, they switch over to buzzing around garbage cans and our 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. (Yellow-jackets nest in the ground.) Some build their nests in old rodent holes, widening them as they develop their hives. 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 and 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the paddle-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer examination of the stems, I spotted a string of tiny, lantern-shaped pupae along with a company of black, yellow and white striped caterpillars. The plant was none other than milkweed and the chrysalises contained baby monarchs in the process of forming.

We placed the milkweed next to a grouping of Joe-Pye weed and sat back to see what would happen.

Things aren’t looking up for the monarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are considered by many to be the ‘king’ of butterflies, with a wing-span of over 4 inches (hence the name, monarch.) But, according to the National Wildlife Federation, their population in North America is in steep decline. Over the past twenty years, monarch numbers have plummeted by an astonishing 90 percent, leading scientists to question what’s happening. They suspect the answer is tied up with milkweed.

Close-up of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Why milkweed you might ask? Because milkweed is the host plant for monarchs, and monarch caterpillars will only eat plants in the family. But milkweed has been disappearing, too. Over the last couple decades, large-scale clearing of meadows and prairies for development coupled with heavy pesticide use has resulted in the plants becoming increasingly scarce, placing in jeopardy the tiny population that depends on it for survival.

The problem is so big that according to one National Public Radio (npr) report, monarch populations overwintering in Mexico that averaged around nine hectares from 1995 to 2002, in 2014 took up less than one.*

A migratory insect

Every spring, thousands of Eastern monarchs begin their annual migration across the Great Plains on their journey from Mexico to Canada, covering over 3,000 miles in the process. And every fall, they do the trip in reverse. The insects breed along the way, stopping three times to go through four stages of development: egg, larvae (caterpillar), chrysalis and adult butterfly. The new butterflies live for just four to eight weeks, long enough to fly further north and lay their eggs. Then the next butterfly continues the journey.

Millions of monarch butterflies flying in Mexico

This means that it takes three butterflies to make it all the way to Canada.

Incredibly, the fourth generation butterfly born in Canada lives a bit longer. This is the monarch that migrates back to warmer climates like Mexico. This butterfly lives for six to eight months, long enough for it to start the whole process over again in the spring. (To read more about the monarch butterfly cycle, click here.

A misunderstood plant

The milkweed family, Asclepias, is composed of more than 100 varieties of leafy plants. Tall and upright with long, elliptical-shaped leaves, milkweeds bear dense clusters of vanilla-scented rosy-pink or orange flowers. The plant owes its common name to the milky latex that oozes when a stem is snapped.

Milkweed provides all the nourishment the four generations of monarchs need to transform from larvae into butterflies. The baby caterpillars feed on the leaves until fully grown, and then attach themselves to a stem or leaf to start the process of metamorphosis. Once they hatch, the monarchs move on to other flowers to live out their short life.

Monarch chrysalis hanging from a milkweed stem

In addition to nourishment, milkweed provides other advantages to monarchs. As the caterpillars undergo transformation in chrysalis, they ingest toxic chemicals secreted in the plants’ sticky sap. These chemicals, called cardenolides, provide the caterpillars with a key defense against would-be predators such as birds and mice.

Monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed

Specifically, cardenolides are so toxic and bitter tasting to other vertebrate species that they have learned to associate bad taste with the butterflies’ distinctive orange and black markings. Although as adults, monarchs no longer eat milkweed, they are able to sequester the toxins that they ingested as larvae, providing them with protection against many predators during the remainder of their lifespan.

Monarchs’ distinctive colors help ward of predators

Monarch butterflies only lay one egg per leaf, but they lay eggs on lots of leaves and always on more than one plant. They are mini eating machines. Three days after it arrived to the fair, the caterpillars had devoured the plant they rode in on; in their place hung rows of tiny pupae.

Many of us are familiar with the roadside milkweed, but lesser known is that there are now many beautiful perennial varieties that can enhance your garden while helping you do your part to save the monarch species.

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

Ready to save the monarchs? Here are some great new milkweed varieties to try, available at many local nurseries.

Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bright orange beauty blooms from May to September. It just won Perennial of the Year for its brilliant flowers, hardy, upright stems and good drought-tolerance.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa

Or, for a great yellow variety, try ‘Hello Yellow’, available through White Flower Farm.

Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’

 

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Swamp milkweed ‘Cinderella’ available at Perennials.com

Or try a mix of hot colors, Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mixture, available at White Flower Farm.

Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mixture

Milkweed generally blooms from June to August. All varieties need full sun and well-drained soil. If you observe caterpillars or chrysalises on your plant, wait until the butterflies have flown away, then simply cut the plant to the ground.

* Monarch populations are measured in hectares, which roughly equal 2 1/2 acres.

 

Pass The Vinegar, I Need To Water My Plants

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

Before you wrinkle your nose at this, hear me out, because it’s true. Scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer in 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.

Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study in Nature Plants that reported they had uncovered a novel way to help plants survive drought. The study revealed that the researchers had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in plants that sprang into action in times of water stress. By further unraveling the pathway and the roles different chemicals played within it, the scientists discovered they could induce greater drought tolerance by growing plants in vinegar.

We all know vinegar’s miraculous properties for cleaning windows and removing stains from carpets, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.

My hydrangea showing signs of water stress 

 

The study began with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress. A relative of cabbage and mustard, the genus of small flowering plants is the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced (which makes it one of the model organisms used for studying plant biology.)  Most importantly for the purposes of the study, Arabidopsis has a strong drought tolerance. This is due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6 (histone desacetylase6) that allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.

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

Initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway (sequence of chemical reactions undergone by a compound in a living organism) is active. While normal plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, in times of drought, the Arabidopsis plants switch to the acetate-producing pathway.

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, 70% of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living while all of the other plants had died.

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

By measuring the amounts of acetate in Arabidopsis under stress, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate produced during periods of drought and how well the plants survived. And even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and found that their drought tolerance increased as well when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.

Close-up of rice plant

The implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to genetic engineering. I’m not sure if it will help my hydrangeas battle another scorching Maryland summer, but I’ll let you know.

 

 

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to the shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden. Continue reading

Trade In Your Lawn For A Low-Maintenance Meadow Garden

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A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work

These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. The suburban meadow offers a beautiful solution to this problem. Continue reading

5 Ways You Can Honor Our Planet on Earth Day

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It’s been a while now since Earth Day first made its debut on April 22, 1970. I vaguely remember the strangeness of being let out of school early to pick up trash in the nearby woods. The idea seemed entirely foreign to us at the time, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our garbage on the ground. Hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset. Continue reading

Now There’s Proof: Bees Make Bigger Plants

Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)

There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better. Continue reading

Is the Self-Healing House the Garden of the Future?

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Image via Edwin Indira Waskita

There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading

Bee ID: How To Make Sense Of The Buzz In Your Garden

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Aren’t they cute?

One of the many things I love about gardening is working in tandem with my many fuzzy, buzzing friends. Dutifully arriving on the job each morning, they hover beside me, yielding as one mass each time I shift position in the garden. Sometimes, I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to touch one of the downy creatures, and they’ve agreed to let me stroke them. Feeling the tiny vibrations of all that industrious activity never ceases to amaze me. Continue reading

Ruderal Plants: The Otherworldly Flora of the Colosseum and Chernobyl

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“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 plants to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. Self-sowing in abandoned areas, the hardy plants take root, demonstrating what Mother Nature will create when left to her own devices. Continue reading