Bees, Wasps and Hornets (Oh, My!)

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Here in the Northwest, particularly west of the Cascades, our yards often play host to a variety of winged insects collectively referred to as “bees”. In reality, though, what is often termed “bee” may also include yellow jackets and wasps which are not bees. Bees play an important role in pollination. In fact, bees are the primary pollinators of the garden, though many other insects play their parts as well. Wasps and hornets do not pollinate like bees do.

In my nursery I have a number of plants that are identified as being attractors of bees. This is a good thing for you and your garden. The bees these plants attract are true bees who pollinate and help ensure the cycle of life of flowers progresses.



Despite what you may have seen in the cartoons, honeybees don’t actually build nests, at least not in the sense of a solid, confined object. Instead they build up a hive in a hollow place, such as a hollow tree, a chimney or inside a wall of a house. Once they’ve found such a place they stretch honeycomb across it.

Most of the time honeybees are mild mannered. They go about their business of collecting pollen and taking it back to the hive to build more honey comb. They are too busy to take much notice of you. I’ve even potted up plants while bees were collecting pollen on their flowers.

Honeybees are the only kind of bee that swarms. This happens when a hive gets overcrowded. The queen raises another queen to take over and then she sets off with ten or more thousand bees in search of a new hive location. Even when swarming, the bees are quite gentle, unless they are aggravated. Then they can become very dangerous or even deadly.

If you see a swarm of bees, usually clinging to a branch of a tree, you should stay away. Then, call a beekeeper (an apiarist) to come out, put the bees in a hive box, and take them away. Usually a beekeeper will do this for free.


BumblebeeBumblebees are the cute and cuddly members of the bee family. They are usually fat and fuzzy, though they come in small and large sizes. Most are black and yellow, and some have orange as well.

Like honeybees, bumblebees collect pollen, so they are important to your garden. Unlike honeybees, though, they don’t use the pollen and nectar to make honey. They make bumble! No, just kidding.

Bumblebees make nests inside soft materials, such as an old birdhouse, the insulation in your home, compost piles, or in an underground animal nest. Bumblebee nests are much smaller than honeybee nests, too, numbering only in the hundreds of residents, rather than in the thousands.

Even though they are cute and cuddly looking, they are very aggressive when it comes to defending the nest. For this reason it is best to leave bumblebee nest removal to the experts, that is, a bee exterminator.

Solitary Bees

There are also a lot of different species of what are known as solitary bees. These bees don’t live in hives or collectives. Instead they are usually a single male and female pair and their young. They almost never sting and

many of them can’t sting. They are also beneficial as they are efficient pollinators.


Paper Wasps

Paper Wasp Nest

Paper wasps make their homes out of wood fibers. Usually they build them underneath and/or inside something, such as under the eaves of the house or near the roof of a shed. Their nests are very small, with only 20-40 hexagonal cells in them.

The nest typically hangs down or sticks out from a single bit of papery material. You can easily knock them down with a shovel or hoe. You probably don’t need to spray them before doing so. In my experience they are pretty docile when hanging about the abode. In the past I’ve usually crushed them with a hoe, but now I think I’ll leave them bee (oops, that’s be!)

That’s because they are actually beneficial. While it’s true that they can sting repeatedly, they mostly sting other insects in order to paralyze them. If you swat at them you can be stung. Otherwise they will leave you alone. They also don’t do damage to your home.

Virtually every type of pest insect is preyed upon by at least one type of wasp. For this reason wasps are essential to restricting the numbers of such pests. In fact some types of wasps are used in agriculture to single out and control pests without harming crops.

Mud Wasp Nest

Mud Wasps

Similar to paper wasps, these bugs use mud to make their nests.

Hornets and Yellow Jackets

Here in the Northwest there are about twelve species of yellow jackets. Yellow jackets are a kind of wasp. Hornets are closely related to yellow jackets. Most hornets are yellow and black, but the bald-faced hornet is black and white.

Hornet NestLike wasps, hornets and yellow jackets prey on insects, and thus are beneficial in some circumstances. Hornets are larger and more powerful than other kinds of wasps and yellow jackets. Most are able to take down larger pest insects, such as locusts and grasshoppers, with ease. They also feed on nectar and sugar-rich plant foods, such as sap and overly-ripe fruit.

Hornets build nests that hang down from the branch of a tree or shrub, or under the eaves of your house. Yellow jackets make a similar type of nest, but usually it is in the ground or other enclosed space. In either case, the color of the nest is gray or brown with the appearance of an ugly formless papier-mâché.

Yellow Jacket NestWhen the queen starts a nest in the spring it is only golf-ball-sized. The hive gets to growing and expanding the nest throughout the season. By fall they are usually basket-ball-sized, though some are much larger. A fully mature hive will have several thousand yellow jackets in it.

All yellow jackets are aggressive. You should not attempt to deal with a hive yourself, even when it is small. Either leave it alone if it is not going to be a problem for you or hire a professional exterminator to get rid of it.

If you ever notice a hornet going in and out of a hole in your house, get an exterminator immediately! Hornets have the ability to burrow through wood fairly quickly, like a carpenter ant, and may soon be in your house.

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