Friday, April 1, 2011

Getting to Know Your Hymenoptera

Can't tell a wasp from a honeybee? You are not alone. Before I became a beekeeper, they all looked the same to me.
Here is a very basic course in common Hymenoptera that you might see in your neighborhood. This information might come in handy if you are taking part in the Beacon Bee Sighting Project. (See link in upper left corner of the homepage of this blog.) While the family of Hymenoptera encompasses a wide range of insects including sawflies and ants, we will focus on the members that might be confused for a Honey bee.

The Honey Bee
And so... we will start with the honey bee. As with all other pollinators, the honey bee is fuzzy. All pollinators must have fuzz, or else they cannot collect and transport pollen. In a young honey bee, the fuzz covers the honey bee's head and thorax (middle part), and also forms bands across the abdomen (bottom part). As a honey bee ages, the fuzz wears a bit. The color of the fuzz is not a bright yellow, but rather a ochre, or tan. The abdomen itself can be all black (Carniolan bees), but the most common honey bees are Italian (see photo) and have two or three cardboard colored bands at the top of their abdomens. The honeybee is about 3/4 of an inch long.

The Bumblebee
Bumblebees are big fat lovable pollinators. Fuzz covers their whole body and is black and bright yellow. Because of their size, Bumblebees travel slower than the honey bee.

Orchard Mason Bees
Every May a bunch of cute little bees show up and carefully investigate all of the nail holes on the sides of our house. They look a lot like honey bees, but they are smaller (only about half an inch long), and their abdomens are a bit rounder. A couple of years I figured out that they are orchard mason bees, a lovely wild pollinator. They lay their eggs in holes that are about one eight of an inch wide, and you can make a home for them by drilling a bunch of holes in a log or board and hanging it up outside.

Now we are onto the not so lovable Hymenoptera.
The Carpenter Bee
The carpenter bee is about the size of a small bumble bee, but while its thorax is fuzzy, its abdomen is black and shiny. Beware. The carpenter bee wants to drill small holes in your house, hence the name, and they are very difficult to get rid of.

The Wasp
Finally, the wasp (boooooo). As we complete the course on Hymenoptera, you no doubt know that because wasps don't have any fuzz, they are not pollinators. They have sleek, slender bodies and can vary in size from half an inch to well over an inch (in the case of hornets). This photo is of the common yellowjacket. Black body with bright yellow stripes. Unbarbed stinger allowing it to sting repeatedly. Whereas honey bees make their homes out of wax, wasps chew on wood in order to make their homes out of paper (grey dome like structures).

You are probably wondering what to do with so much new found information. Feel free to contribute to the Beacon Bee Sighting Project. A full description can be found in the Interesting Links box in the upper left corner of the homepage of this blog.

Knowledge is power.