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Identifying the difference between Bees and Wasps can be difficult for members of the public. Here we hope to show the main differences between the species.
A honeybee is about the same size as a wasp, but brown in colour. They form large colonies, and can take up residence in hollow trees, under roofing tiles, and in unused chimneys. On a fine summer day, dozens will be seen coming and going usually through a single entrance. They exist as a colony through winter as well as summer, and if left alone pose very little threat. When in a swarming cluster, they can be removed by a beekeeper.
Wasps are distinctive by their bright yellow colour. They build nests usually in the ground, but sometimes under roof tiles or in sheds. Unlike the honeybees’ comb, which is constructed from beeswax, the wasp’s nest is made from a very delicate paper material, made from wood scrapings and saliva. They live as a colony ranging from a few dozen to several hundred, and can be seen coming and going through their entrance not more than two or three at a time. In the autumn, all the workers and drones die, leaving only newly mated queens to hibernate and start a new colony the following spring, usually in a new location. A colony of wasps does not usually pose a threat if left alone, but they can be a nuisance in the kitchen, and are predators of other insects, including honeybees. If destruction is necessary, the local Pest Control Officer should be called in.
The final group of insects that sometimes cause concern are Solitary Bees. These are harmless bees, which, as the name suggests, lead solitary existences. Mated females over-winter and in the spring, excavate tunnels in the ground, or in hollow twigs or old masonry walls, depending on the species. They provision the tunnels with pellets of pollen onto which they lay an egg. When the tunnel is fully provisioned, it is sealed, and the bee’s job is done. She never gets to see her offspring. Although leading a solitary life style, if an area is particularly attractive, such as a lawn with light, sandy soil, many individuals can take advantage of it. Solitary bees pose no threat at all, and, like bumble bees, should be protected wherever possible.
Bumblebees come in a range of sizes and markings, but they can usually be distinguished by their fat, hairy bodies, and a louder than normal buzz. Their life cycle is not dissimilar to the wasps, in that only the queens survive through winter to start a new colony each spring. They usually nest at ground level, in the base of hedgerows, or under stones, often making use of an abandoned mouse’s nest. Numbers rarely reach a hundred, usually much less, and if the entrance is observed, little activity can be seen, individuals coming and going one at a time. Extremely valuable as pollinators, bumblebees are rarely known to sting, and if possible, their nest site should be protected.
One often reads in the press of “killer swarms”, which can apparently cause widespread injuries, and overturn small lorries. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but there is no doubt that there are occasions when the media tend to sensationalise what is a perfectly natural phenomenon. Swarming bees are as natural as swarming ants, or swarming gnats, and pose almost as little threat. Before leaving home, the bees that are going to join the swarm gorge themselves with honey, carrying as much as they can with them to help in setting up their new home. When they are full of honey, they are at their most placid. Also, at the time when they are clustered on a tree or shrub, they have no home to defend, and no brood to protect, so they are not in defensive mode. Their only interest is in locating a suitable new home. What they are seeking is a dark cavity, large enough to house them, and which will offer them security against the weather and predators. In nature, this would probably be a hollow tree, but man has developed some very useful cavities, which the bees sometimes find equally attractive. A cavity wall, a space under roofing tiles, or an unused chimney. It is sometimes said that all the best homes in the country have their own colony of bees in the roof, or the chimney, and it is true that in these situations, the bees do no damage. Unfortunately, it is also true however, that many people have a genuine fear of the insect, and do not want them in close proximity. These are the circumstances when a beekeeper is usually called out.