Not All Bees are Scary
It’s myth-busting time, for the sake of our gardens and friendly local pollinators. Putting all things that buzz into the same basket – that is, assuming that all bees and wasps are alike – is like equating a sparrow and a hawk.
Bees are the pacifists of your garden. These unassuming bumbling pollinators will not be aggressive unless they feel really, truly threatened. While bees and wasps might come from the same order (Hymenoptera) that’s where most of the similarities end. Bees are vegetarians while wasps are carnivores; and they certainly do not work together, in fact, they are usually enemies by nature!
It breaks our heart when people come to us asking how to kill the bees in their year, mistaking them for their far more annoying or even dangerous relatives. We are sure that the more you learn about different bees in your yard, the less afraid of them you’ll be. They are some of the hardest working insects in your garden that bring a whole list of benefits with them and are just not dangerous unless they feel mortally threatened. With their populations struggling and as we discover more and more how much we need them, it’s time to get to know our buzzing friends so that we’re more comfortable with them in our yards and homes.
It would be difficult for us to exaggerate how helpful honeybees are. They are responsible for pollinating a third of the food we eat – meaning they have a significant role in our bountiful produce aisles at the store and in our gardens. But they also produce one of the most amazing foods on earth: honey.
We don’t just like honey; it’s a “perfect food” because it’s actually a bit of a scientific marvel. If kept in an airtight container, it never spoils. There have been reports of perfectly edible honey being found in sealed Pharaoh’s tombs thousands of years after their burial. It’s also a tasty food that is created in surplus as part of bees’ pollinating routine, so it is part of a bigger, beneficial process. Here’s how honeybees work:
The actual size of honeybee colonies can alarm people. They live together in hives that can have more than 60 000 buzzing bees – there’s always a bit of a natural hum surrounding them that puts people on edge. These hives work like a little society, with incredibly well-organized hierarchies and
communication networks to make sure it is working at peak capacity. The queen of a hive lives for up to 4 years, while workers only survive about 6 weeks. A dozen workers will make about a teaspoon of honey in their entire lifespan.
Once the mercury plunges and the flowers are no longer blooming, the bees settle in for the winter, but they don’t hibernate. They use the honey that they produced all winter as an energy source and crowd together to brave our winter extremes. They all work to vibrate their wings, which generates enough heat to keep the centre of the colony a balmy 30°C, even when temperatures drop well below -40°C! For the kind of energy to keep that going, a hive might consume about 40 pounds of honey per winter.
Honeybees in the Garden
Unlike wasps, who have earned their nasty reputation, honeybees aren’t aggressive and won’t sting unless their life, of the life of their hive is threatened. They’re much more focused on their job making honey and spreading pollen. It takes a lot to make a honeybee want to sting – you basically have
to sit on them! The stinger on a bee is barbed, which means it sticks in your skin. When they sting, a large part of their insides is torn out of them with the stinger as they fly away, resulting in death. It makes sense then, why they aren’t quite so eager to sting the random passerby.
The majority of wasps are solitary, parasitic, harmless to humans, and nearly invisible. But there are a few more social species that have earned quite the bad reputation for all of them. The outdoor picnic-ruining Yellow Jacket is the poster child of these nasty wasps and is not only the most common but
a sleek, aggressive flyer that isn’t as shy about stinging as some of its distant bee relatives.
Yellow jackets love to nest below ground or in hard to reach places. Sometimes this helps us avoid them, but other times you aren’t sure where a nest is until you’ve run over it with the lawnmower. These wasps are attracted to strong scents like perfumes and colognes, as well as bright coloured clothing, and they’ll try to scavenge whatever sweets and meats left out on your patio that they can.
The important difference between the humble honeybee and the wasp is that while honeybees are grazing foragers, wasps are predators. They’re carnivorous and aggressive, and won’t spend much time pollinating when they can hunt insects like flies and caterpillars instead.
Their colonies might be much smaller, at only 1000 strong, but given the difference in disposition between honeybees and wasps, a much smaller wasp hive is still a way bigger nuisance.
While wasps are obviously not as imposing to us as they are to their prey, their stingers still pose an issue. They aren’t barbed like a bee stinger, making them much more willing to sting, and able to sting repeatedly when they do. To rub salt in the wound, as they sting they also release a pheromone that invited their friends to join the party. We might fear a visible swarm of honeybees, but even a solitary wasp can be more dangerous.
Hornets are actually a type of wasp, but they act a little bit different. We’re most likely to see bald-faced hornets in our area, who have black and white markings on a broader body than wasps.
Wasps and hornets are carnivores that technically eat enough pests in the garden
to be seen as beneficial, though most people don’t see their threat of stinging as worthwhile. They also love to eat rotting fruit, so you can expect them to show up where there is fallen apples or other fruits.
You’ll find a hornet in classic grey, pear-shaped nests – stumbling across one always gets the heart beating a little faster.
We’re always amazed at how these gently, fuzzy blimps can even sustain flight on their itty-bitty wings. These gentle giants live in comparatively small nests of only 50-300 bees each, and only make enough honey for their own use over the winter – only the queen survives all winter, protected in holes
in the ground, meaning that much less honey is needed.
These adorable bees are timid, but they’ll still sting if threatened. Contrary to popular belief they can actually sting numerous times, but they still rather keep to themselves than bother you.
While honeybees have a short tongue and can be found in your open, full-blooming flowers, different bumblebees have different unique tongues that make them specialists at obtaining nectar and pollen from certain types of flowers. These specialized bees are very efficient with their favourite blooms, but their unique abilities also make them much less adaptable and more vulnerable to habitat loss.
Getting to know these bright pollinators and pests in the garden help to reduce a bit of the fear that comes with their ominous buzzing sound. Bees are such an essential part of how our gardens and food supplies work, that it’s a relief to understand how harmful they are, and how fortunate we are when they visit our own gardens!