Wasps and bees do not transmit disease to organisms, but they significantly impact people by stings that can trigger severe allergic reactions. While the honeybee, for one, is invaluable in pollinating plants and delighting tea drinkers with honey and candlemakers with beeswax, this group of insects is responsible for more than 100 deaths a year from stings. Wasps, yellow jackets, and bees are also a recreational nuisance at a picnic.
There are many types of wasps. The most common are:
Paper Wasp (Polistes, multiple species)
The paper wasp is ¾ to 1 inch long, a reddish or brown insect with yellow markings and membranous wings. Its nest is a paper-like shelter resembling a honeycomb. The nest is commonly constructed under house eaves or window ledges.
Yellow Jacket (Vespula, multiple species)
A small black wasp about ¾ inch-in length with yellow or white markings, the yellow jacket usually nests in a hole in the ground, excavated first by the founding queen and later enlarged steadily by workers.
Baldfaced Hornet (Vespula)
A robust ¾-inch black wasp of the genus Vespula, with yellow or white markings, its nest consists of several to many tiers of hexagonal paper cells, all enclosed in a papery envelope. Usually built in the open, the nest is attached to branches, under a porch or beneath any projecting surface. The football shaped nest may be nearly a foot in diameter.
Bumble Bee (Bombus, multiple species)
A robust insect averaging 1 inch in length, black and yellow in color, it is densely covered with hairs. The male is short-lived, but the fertilized female remains to complete the life cycle. Bumblebees form colonies, mate in late summer, and the fertilized female survives the winter by hibernation to start a new colony in the spring. At full-development, a colony may have several hundred bees. Nests are made of wax cells, generally located in abandoned rodent burrows, mulch, or under logs or debris. Bumblebees may also nest in holes in house walls or under slab foundations.
Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
The 2/3 inch long honeybee, golden brown and covered with hairs, forms permanent colonies that may survive indefinitely in nests or hives made of wax cells, having at full development a colony of 50,000 to 80,000 bees. New colonies are formed by the migration of the old queen, attended by a number of worker bees. A new virgin queen emerges and continues the original colony. Males are expelled from the hive in autumn and die. Most colonies are in manmade hives. Escaped swarms usually nest in a hollow tree, in holes in a wall or under slab foundations.
Wasps – The wasp is a highly social insect. Wasp colonies consist of a queen, workers and drones (males). In autumn, males and queens are produced by the colony. These mate, and the newly fertilized queens will be the only ones surviving the winter, seeking out sheltered areas under rocks, bark and harborage such as rodent burrows. In the spring, the queen begins construction of a nest and raises her first brood of workers, which maintain the colony. Wasps construct nests out of papery material consisting of wood or foliage they have chewed. The larvae are fed chiefly on insects and other arthropods or on bits of tissue from animal carcasses. Colonies vary from thirty to several thousand.
Yellow Jackets – Social insects forming colonies of 75 to more than 5,000 workers, yellow jackets have an annual nesting cycle. In autumn, hundreds of new queens emerge from the colony, mate with males, and hibernate until spring. A single overwintered queen will build a colony without aid from other queens. After the first brood of workers is produced, the queen becomes the egg layer and rarely leaves the colony. Summer is a time of rapid growth and the colony survives until late fall depending on the species and locality. Colonies are formed near the ground or in human dwellings. They are attracted to meat (protein), sweets and soda pop.
Bees – Highly social insects, bee colonies consist of a queen, workers and drones (males). Bees differ from wasps in that the young are fed honey and pollen rather than animal food. Bees, the most important insects involved in pollinating plants, collect nectar that is concentrated into honey by evaporation.
Wasps and bees do not transmit disease organisms, but can cause painful stings and allergic reactions. The ovipositor of the female bees and wasps has become adapted to form a poison stinger that is used to inject venom into prey or can be used as a defensive mechanism.
The effect of the sting in most non-sensitized persons produces local pain, swelling and redness, which pass harmlessly in a few hours.
Medical attention may be needed for stings in the mouth, or multiple stinging where cases of anaphylactic shock can be fatal. Anaphylactic shock or death can occur in people who are particularly sensitive to bee or wasp stings. In these people, a gradation of allergic reactions can occur, including:
Slight Reaction – Inflammation, welts, itching, malaise and anxiety developing within an hour after the sting.
General Reaction – In addition to the symptoms of a slight reaction, swelling, chest constriction, wheezing, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or dizziness may also occur.
Severe General Reaction – Further symptoms are difficulty in breathing or swallowing, hoarseness, confusion, or a feeling of impending disaster.
Shock Reaction Cases – In addition to the above, cyanosis or a bluish discoloration of the skin, a drop in blood pressure, collapse, incontinence or unconsciousness.
More than 500,000 people in the U.S. are attacked each year by these insects, suffering painful stings, allergic reactions, and death to more than 100 persons. Some 26% of the U.S. population are sensitized to the venom of the sting, with 4% experiencing systemic reactions and 5% suffering allergic reactions.
Wasp and Bee Control
There are many ways to control wasps and bees.
When foraging yellow jackets are a nuisance around picnic areas, indirect methods can provide some relief Cover garbage and foods that seem highly attractive. Avoid or cap sweet drinks, which are attractive to the insects. Sweet items such as ripened fruits and soft drinks should be covered when outdoors.
If fruit trees are nearby, pick fruit as it ripens and dispose of rotten fruits. Avoid working with flowering ornamentals or mowing the lawn when bees and wasps are actively collecting nectar. Avoid walking barefoot on lawns. Wear white clothing, which is least attractive to these stinging insects. Be aware that some perfumes lotions and hair sprays can also attract them.
Avoid swatting investigating worker bees, which can increase their aggressiveness. Stand still if a stinging insect is near you. If it attacks, do not slap it, but merely brush it off to prevent a sting. If attacked by a swarm of bees or wasps, protect your face and leave the area as soon as possible.
Honeybees and bumblebees are beneficial pollinators. Bees are not typically a serious problem and usually require no control unless they nest too close to human habitations. If an unwanted honeybee swarm is in or near your home or shrubs and trees, it is probably best to contact a pest control operator or beekeeper to remove the bees.