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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That … a Bee or a Wasp?

What Is That … a Bee or a Wasp?


Like most people, the first thing we think about when we see a bee or a wasp is avoiding its painful, venomous sting.  We are the owners of an ‘EpiPen’, which we religiously take with us to the cottage, and have learned to identify the bees and wasps with which we share the great outdoors.  By doing so, we have a good understanding of their behaviours, reducing the risk of being stung and possibly having to use our ‘Epipen’ and go to the hospital.  We have also learned how beneficial these insects are as pollinators; as predators of other insects, many of which are considered pests on crops and in gardens; and, as sources of food for birds.

Bees and wasps and hornets (which are the largest of the wasps) are all members of the order Hymenoptera, which also includes ants and sawflies.  Bees tend to have rounder, more robust and hairy bodies and hairy, flattened legs compared to wasps.  Bees, which feed on pollen and flower nectar, tend to be less aggressive than wasps.  Most wasps are carnivorous, preying on other insects.  Lastly, bees have a wax-producing gland which they use to build their nests while non-parasitic wasps mix wood pulp or soil with their saliva to build their paper or mud nests.  Honey bee colonies survive for more than one season, overwintering within the hive by feeding on stored honey, while bumble bee and wasp colonies die out in the fall with only fertilized new queens overwintering in a dormant state, re-activating with warmer spring temperatures to start new colonies.  Bumble bees and wasps do not re-use old nests.

We have observed a variety of bees and wasps around the cottage but have only managed to photograph, usually from a respectful distance, bumble bees, three types of wasps and one species of hornet.  We have never seen a honey bee at the cottage.

Both honey bees and bumble bees can, and will, sting if you step on them or disturb their nests, which are often hidden in the soil or wood piles.   Honey bees can only sting once since their barbed stingers and venom glands remain lodged in the host, ripping out of the bee‘s abdomen when it flies away.  This kills the bee.  Bumble bees have a smooth stinger and can sting repeatedly.  Honey bees are about 1.3 centimetres long while bumble bees can be as large as 2.5 centimetres.  This photo of a tri-coloured bumble bee shows many of the bee characteristics.


All wasps that sting have a smooth stinger and so can sting repeatedly.  One of the most aggressive and most likely to sting and disrupt cottagers is the yellow jacket.  They build their paper nests in sheltered areas such as eaves and under decks at the cottage.  The abdomen is predominantly yellow and the insects can grow up to 1.3 centimetres in length.   During late summer and fall, they scavenge and sting aggressively often disrupting cottage activities where there is food and drink. recommends the preferred way to deal with these wasps is to avoid attracting them, by serving food and drink only when people are ready to eat and drink; promptly putting away food and drink when done; throwing garbage into containers with tight fitting lids; and, not trying to kill the wasps as they release alarm chemicals that will attract more wasps.  They also recommend you check open bottles and cans before taking a drink to ensure you are not about to swallow a wasp. This photo shows a yellow jacket harvesting nectar from our feeder, from which they aggressively chase the hummingbirds.


Paper wasps have long, narrow bodies, ranging up to 2.5 centimetres.  Their abdomens are predominantly black.  They only sting in self-defence or to protect their nests.  They are easily identified in flight as their long legs hang down.  They construct paper nests but do not construct outer walls, so the nest cells are open to the surrounding environment as shown in this photo.


Pelecinid wasps do not sting but the females can grow up to 6.2 centimetres in length and look scary because of their long, thin abdomens.  These wasps do not build nests, instead laying their eggs directly into insect larvae such as those of June bugs that feed on decomposing plant matter in the soil.  Eventually the Pelecinid wasp eggs and larvae kill the host.


The European hornet is an introduced species. It will use its venomous sting to defend its nest.   Since it rarely stings and grows to more than 3.5 centimetres, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘gentle giant’.  It tends to build its paper nest in hollow trees.  Its larvae feed on large insects including crickets, grasshoppers, large flies, caterpillars and other wasp species.  Workers tend to be active at night and are attracted when lights are left on.


In general, the majority of people who have been stung by any bee or wasp, suffer localized reactions to stings including burning, itching, redness and swelling at the site of the sting.  Unfortunately, some of us have a more serious, allergic reaction to stings including hives, rashes and swelling away from the sting site, headaches, minor respiratory symptoms and stomach upset.  Rarely but occasionally, people suffer life-threatening systemic reactions that can cause anaphylactic shock, including fainting, difficulty breathing, extensive swelling and difficulty breathing.  People with known or suspected allergic/systemic reactions should consult their physician about obtaining a prescription for an epinephrine auto injector, such as an EpiPen, for initial self-treatment, if stung.  It is interesting to note that different stinging species of bees and wasps produce different types of venom so having a severe reaction to the sting of one species does not necessarily mean you will have the same reaction to a sting from another species.  We do not, however, recommend you test this out.

In addition to, we found, and John Acorn’s book Bugs of Ontario to be helpful sources.


What is that … Pine?

What is that … Nest?



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