The value of fresh worm castings, well-rotted compost, and maybe a soaker hose or two goes pretty well undisputed among organic gardeners, but I happen to have an extra trick up my sleeve. (Well, at the height of honeybee season, I guess I have about 60,000 “tricks,” actually.) I became a beekeeper a few years ago because I knew these industrious insects would pollinate the heck out of my black raspberries, strawberries, and perennial flower beds -- and because the beleaguered honeybee needs our help. As a result, my gardens have never looked better, and, by about August, I can't look another black raspberry cobbler in the eye.

But there have been some unexpected consequences. Like the fact that Animal Control and the local extension office have me on speed dial for all the times anxious residents call about the “honeybees” that just showed up. So I keep my bee veil, spare hive boxes, and bee smoker at the ready, and I happily make house calls to catch wild honeybee swarms.  

Trouble is many folks are so far removed from nature that they can't tell a honeybee from its creepy cousin the yellow jacket. (Both are members of the insect order Hymenoptera.)

I can't tell you how many times I'd arrive at someone's house expecting a bounty of bees clinging to a high tree branch, only to find a stream of yellow jackets pouring out of their shiny hole in the ground. I've learned to ask a few key questions before I bother to come out now. Among them: do the insects you have look really shiny with bright yellow and black? Are they nesting in the ground?

 Do they seem rather aggressive? And when they answer, “Yes, yes, and yes!” I give them the bad news. Probably just yellow jackets. “But they're stripey!” they blurt. Um. It takes more than stripes to make a honeybee, honey.

To set the record straight, yes, both honeybees and yellow jackets have stripes, but honeybees have a much greater color range -- some of my bees are nearly all black, others are caramel-colored, and still others are a brilliant yellow-gold. A honeybee's abdomen does look shiny, but its thorax is somewhat fuzzy. Finally, while yellow jackets scavenge around garbage cans for meals, the gentle honeybee painstakingly collects pollen and nectar for herself one glorious flower at a time.

Story by Susan Brackney. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Honeybee or yellow jacket?
How to tell these two apart.