Bees and wasps deserve our respect more than our fear. At least 120,000 species exist worldwide, most of which live low-key lives without ever stinging a human. Both play important roles as pollinators, supporting local economies as well as native ecosystems. Honeybees famously sweeten the deal with honey, but wasps also collectively prey on nearly every type of pest insect known to science.
Of course, wasps and bees don't always show us the respect we deserve, either. Certain species can be ornery, uptight and territorial — as can we, which sometimes leads to conflict. This typically begins with a misunderstanding and mutual distrust: High-strung yellow jackets may fail to see the innocence of a loud lawnmower, for example, while we often take umbrage to their face-level flybys.
But if we know what to expect from bees and wasps, and what to do if things ever do get ugly, there's no reason we can't all share the same habitat. So in the spirit of coexistence, here's a closer look at some common types of bees and wasps — and how we can get along with (or away from) them.
A paper wasp keeps a vigil at her nest, which is made from chewed-up wood pulp. (Photo: Jason Milich/Flickr)
The majority of wasps are solitary and harmless to humans. Our beef is typically with the social wasps, a feisty group of colony builders that includes yellow jackets, paper wasps and hornets. Bees are even less likely to sting or swarm us, with only some honeybees posing much of a risk.
Although any of these insects may attack if threatened, yellow jackets (aka "common wasps" in Europe) are most prone to clash with us. That's not just because they're pugnacious, but also because they form huge colonies with up to 5,000 workers at ground level, where we're more likely to disturb them. Popular nesting sites include old rodent burrows, hollow trees and rotten stumps.
A paper wasp sting reportedly hurts more than a yellow jacket's, but they're less aggressive and live in colonies of fewer than 100 wasps. Their nests are open, umbrella-like paper combs, often found under eaves. Hornets, the largest social wasps, also deliver memorable stings thanks to acetylcholine, a potent pain stimulant. They're not as aggressive as yellow jackets either, but they can still raise hundreds of hotheads inside their large, enclosed combs that hang from trees or buildings.
Honeybee stings are similar to yellow jackets', but their barbed stingers limit them to one sting each, unlike wasps, and they're usually not as combative. One notable exception are Africanized "killer" bees, a hybrid of African and European honeybees that have colonized much of the Americas since their 1957 escape from an experimental apiary in Brazil. Bred to be hardier and more productive, they're also more aggressive, launching quick, vigorous attacks that are sometimes fatal.
Yellow jackets are uniquely mean, however, especially in late summer. A jittery colony may attack even without clear cause, as seen in this video of yellow jackets swarming an unmanned camera:
How to escape an attack
What should you do if you anger a yellow jacket colony? The obvious answer is "leave," but it's not quite that simple. For a more nuanced answer, we asked biologist Michael Goodisman, a yellow jacket expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology — whose school mascot is also a yellow jacket.
"It depends," Goodisman tells MNN via email, abbreviating yellow jacket as YJ. "If you disturb a nest just a little, and you realize it, you may see that the YJs will be 'agitated' and gathering around the exit hole patrolling around. If the YJs are just in a state of agitation, you can back away slowly and let them settle down. For example, accidentally blocking the flight path of YJs from their nest will initially lead to agitation. But they will return to normal behavior if you get out of their way."
"But usually, of course, people don't realize that they are around a nest until it is too late," he adds. "Indeed, most folks find subterranean YJ nests when they are mowing their lawn or raking leaves. If you find yourself under full attack, you should run away. Cover your face and try to get indoors."
Don't bother flailing or swatting at yellow jackets, which might just cause them to release more alarm pheromone. Your best bet is to either get indoors or get far away from the colony. The National Park Service also suggests walking toward dense vegetation if you can't reach a building or vehicle, but the top priority should be seeking space and barriers between yourself and the nest.
"If the YJs are in a state of 'agitation' and haven't started a full-on defensive response, then backing up 10 yards or so will probably be enough," Goodisman says. "But if they are in attack mode, you will probably want to put at least 50 yards between you and the nest. And even that may not be enough, because some species of YJs will actually follow you. [T]here are YJs that are known to chemically 'mark' their victim when they sting. This chemical mark allows other YJs to track the victim."
Jumping into water probably isn't a good idea, since your face will be vulnerable coming up for air. Goodisman says he's unaware of yellow jackets waiting for their target to resurface, but killer bees have been known to do so. And when you're being attacked, there's no point trying to identify the species. "Your reaction should be the same," he says. "If you are under full attack, get out of there. The wasps/bees are stinging you because they believe you are a threat to their nest."
Yellow jackets' taste for meat has earned them the misnomer "meat bees" in some places. (Photo: Rene Schwietzke/Flickr)
Why yellow jackets see red
Yellow jackets are already irritable insects, but something changes in late summer and fall: Not only do they become even more belligerent, but they also tend to wander away from the nest and toward places where people hang out. It often seems like they're trying to pick a fight. Why?
"First, YJs are at peak numbers in the late summer and early fall," Goodisman explains. "Thus there are just more YJs around to cause trouble. Second, their diet seems to change at this time of year. The colonies transition from producing workers to producing new reproductive queens and males. These queens and males are believed to require more carbohydrates (as opposed to proteins, which the YJs can get from their usual food source of other insects). It turns out that humans also like carbohydrates such as sugary foods, so YJs will come into contact with humans, at picnics or around trash for example, when they are foraging for this food source."
Beyond that, he adds, yellow jackets are probably more defensive of their nests in late summer and fall because they know young queens and males are in there. "They want to defend their future reproductive relatives in the same way humans would," he says. Although there's less evidence of other wasps growing meaner as summer wanes, Goodisman adds that bees and wasps "can be more aggressive in the summer when it is warmer, because they are generally more active in the heat."
If yellow jackets crash your August picnic, swatting or killing them may just make things worse. The best way to thwart wandering bees or wasps is to hide whatever food or drinks attracted them. Not wearing brightly colored clothes can also help you fly under their radar. If you live near a wasp nest, the simplest tactic is to give them space and coexist — they might even eat pests and pollinate your plants. If they're too close for comfort, though, use these tips for dispatching them safely.
Whenever someone is stung, keep an eye out for an allergic reaction, which can be life-threatening. If you notice severe swelling, difficulty breathing or other allergy symptoms, contact a poison control center or hopsital emergency room. Otherwise, it takes about 10 stings per pound of body weight to deliver a lethal dose of bee or wasp venom. Unless you're stung that many times or are suffering from an allergic reaction, try these natural sting remedies to help you recover.
The enclosed paper comb of a hornet nest may hold up to 700 workers in late summer. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Related insect stories on MNN:
- Super slow-motion video casts honeybees in new light
- Why you should care more about pollination than a sting
- 2 important reasons to leave a wasp nest in your yard