A common question is always "What is the difference between a honey bee, a bumble bee and a wasp?"
Bees and wasps often cause confusion when being identified, however these insects are really quite different in appearance. All three are social insects that live in colonies, and all have the ability to sting.
The honey bee, typically ranges in colour from almost black to orangey yellow, with dark banded stripes on their elongated bodies. The bright color pattern is there to warn potential predators that they have a sting to defend themselves. The sting is combined with a venom gland located at the end of the abdomen.
Honeybees are social insects. In the wild, they create hives containing up to 20,000 individuals while domestic hives may have over 80,000 bees. Bees work together in a highly structured specialized groups called castes. The different castes are: queens, drones and workers.
There is only one queen in a hive and her role is to make more bees. She can lay over 1,500 eggs per day and will live between two to eight years.
Drones, have no stinger and only live for about eight weeks. There will only be a few hundred present in a hive and their sole function is to mate with a queen.
Worker bees maintain and operate the hive. They make up the vast majority of the hive's occupants and they are all sterile females. When young, they are called house bees and work in the hive doing comb construction, brood rearing, tending the queen and drones, cleaning, temperature regulation and defending the hive. Older workers are called field bees. They forage outside the hive to gather nectar, pollen, water and certain sticky plant resins used in hive construction. Workers born early in the spring will live about 6 weeks while those born in the Autumn will live until the following spring.
Workers are about 12 mm long and have a straight, barbed stinger which can only be used once. It rips out of their abdomen after use, which kills the bee.
The bumblebee, has a larger and more rounded hairy body than the honey bee. It too varies in colour, but usually has a dark body with yellow or orange bands. The tail of the bumblebee may be black, white or red. Bumblebees live in much smaller colonies than honey bees. The bumble bee has always been perceived as a friendly bee and is usually depicted by children in drawings.
As its original name “humble bee” implies, the bumble bee is gentle and slow, much less aggressive than its relative the honey bee. It has thin wings, two big eyes and three small eyes, and bumbles around with a lazy buzz. Bumble Bees are rarely a nuisance or pose a threat when in close proximity to humans as they will usually go out of their way to avoid human contact. Most of the time they will flee away from danger but will sting to defend themselves if they sense they are cornered and cannot escape. Unlike many other stingling insects including the honey bees, bumble bees do not lose their sting and die after stinging.
Like the honey bee, they are considered very important pollinators of flowers of many plant species and they live in a colony. There are over 200 types of bumblebees in the world, with each specie having its own preference to types of nectar and prefering different flowers. They gather pollen to feed its young, and search for places to start new colonies. Their colony grows larger over the summer and is commonly found in the garden. The worker bees collect pollen and nectar from the flowers and help defend the colony. They then emerge about 21 days after the queen bee lays her eggs.
Bumble Bees are usually found in flowering plants and don't make holes or tunnels in wood, they will nest under piles of grass clippings or leaves, stones, and logs. A queen bumblebee makes a new nest each year. Their nests are small compared to those of honey bees, with each containing only a few hundred bees.
The wasp, is a similar size to the honey bee, but has a flatter and more shark like body. Wasps can be a nuisance during the summer because they are attracted by food and can be persistent and aggressive. Wasps are social insects that produce a colony. Colonies begin each spring, initiated by a single fertilised female (queen) that has survived winter.
Social wasp colonies are very small in the spring, but expand rapidly through the summer as more wasps are raised that assist in colony development. By the end of summer, a colony may include several hundred, individuals. Some wasps reared at the end of the season are fertile females (potential queens) and a few males. In the Autumn, colonies are abandoned, never to be reused, and the fertilized females scatter to find protection during winter. The remaining members of the colony die during cold weather.
Most social wasps rear their young on a diet of live insects. Several types of social wasps are important in controlling insect pests such as caterpillars. An exception to this is the yellowjacket, which primarily scavenges dead insects, earthworms and other rubbish. This scavenging habit is usually why yellowjackets become serious nuisance problems. Social wasps are capable of producing a painful sting but none leave the stinger embedded.
Yellowjackets are banded yellow or orange and black and are commonly mistaken for honey bees, but they lack the hairy body and are more intensely colored. Yellowjackets typically nest underground using existing hollows. Occasionally nests can be found in dark, enclosed areas of a building.
Masonry bees are generally smaller than honey bees and are encountered in spring and summer. They are not social bees and do not live in colonies. They are often confused with the mason bee, however the mason bee uses existing holes to rear its larvae, while the masonry bee digs its own.
Masonry Bees excavate tunnels in walls. They then fill the tunnel with a mixture of nectar and pollen known as ‘bee bread’ and they lay an egg on it. This process is repeated until the tunnel is full. The eggs hatch, and the larvae feed on the bee bread and grow. The larvae pupate and then emerge in late spring.
Masonry bees are not social and are generally harmless, they are extremely unlikely to attempt to sting and their sting is unable to penetrate human skin.
Masonry bees can cause property damage on older houses due to their tunnelling; however modern houses with good mortar can not be damaged by the masonry bee. Re-pointing of mortar is the only real answer, although small individual holes are easily filled.