JULY
2001

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

7-26-01

Summertime Abuzz with Bees and Wasps

The good ol' summertime means lawn mowing, baseball games, picnics in the park, family vacations and encounters with insects. Human and insect interaction during the hazy, crazy days of summer can be pleasant experiences-a butterfly nectaring at a flower or the flashing lights of hundreds of fireflies over a misty nighttime meadow.

Many times, though, summertime encounters with insects are of a kind that we like to avoid, like a bite from a mosquito or a sting from a bee or wasp. Yes, the summer buzzing of insects can mean an unpleasant situation.

But wait, not all insects that buzz will sting. Insects that intentionally sting are bees, wasps and some ants. A few caterpillars have stinging hairs and are to be avoided, but you have to touch them to get stung. 

To be sure, all female bees and wasps possess stingers. But not all bees and wasps will sting humans. Some only use their stingers to paralyze food for their young.

Generally, the bees and wasps that are called social insects will sting. These insects live in a colony, which can include hundreds of individuals. Well-known stinging social bees are bumble bees and honey bees.

Social wasps that sting include the so-called paper wasps. These wasps construct their nest material out of chewed wood or paper. One species of paper wasp makes its open nest under the eves of buildings. Another paper wasp is known as the bald-faced hornet. This hornet constructs a crepe-paper globe nest that hangs from a tree limb. Yellow jackets are also hornets, but their nest is constructed underground.

These social bees and wasps use their stingers to defend their nest. So, if you get too close to the nest, the inhabitants may protect it by stinging you, the intruder.  Many a young farm boy has provoked a wasp or bee colony into defensive behavior and received multiple stings for his trouble!

Not all bees and wasps are social insects. In fact, most species of bees and wasps live solitary lives. The females of these species raise their offspring alone. Generally, the solitary bees and wasps use their stingers only to paralyze their prey. While they can sting other things, it is rare that they do so.

Some solitary bees make their nest by mining in plant stems or wood. The carpenter bees build their nest in wood, sometimes in the wood that is the structure of our homes. Some leaf-cutter bees mine the pith out of plant stems for their nest. All of these bees feed their offspring pollen and nectar.

A few species of solitary wasps also feed pollen to their young. Most, however, provide their larvae insects or spiders as food. Mud daubers fit into this category.

Mud daubers get their name because they construct their nest of wet soil. The nest of some species looks like a batch of mud thrown against the side of a building. Other species are known as organ-pipe mud daubers because the nest resembles the pipes of a church organ. In both cases, the adult female wasp provides paralyzed spiders in the cell of a nest as food for the offspring. As many as 15 spiders might be placed in a mud dauber cell before an egg is laid.

Most of the wasps that feed on insects and spiders burrow in the ground when nesting. One of these wasps is known as a tarantula hawk because it provides tarantulas for its kids' dinner. This, as most people would guess, is a large wasp.

Another large wasp is the cicada killer. As the name suggests, this wasp catches and places a cicada in a burrow as food for the offspring. Fortunately, the cicada killer is a very calm insect and hardly ever stings humans. It should wear a sign that reads, "I will sting for food."

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox