The Social Wasps and Bees

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Price, T.S. Hazards of the Outdoors. Georgia Forestry Commission. Macon, GA. January 2006. 24 p.


The social Hymenoptera includes the fire ants, honey bees, bumble bees, paper wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets. These insects are social in that they live in colonies in which individuals perform certain functions. The individuals of a colony are of three types - queens, workers, and males. The queens and workers are females that possess stingers, which are capable of delivering a painful, venomous jab. The stinger is a modified egg laying tube that is used for defense and for paralyzing prey during food gathering. Some colonies may contain several hundred stinging members. This increases the likelihood of multiple stings when a nest is disturbed. Hymenoptera venom is protein-based except in the fire ants, which is composed of potent alkaloids.

The paper wasps, yellowjackets and hornets construct their nests out of materials that consist of wood or leaves that have been chewed and worked into a papery substance. These nests can be found in many places and are frequently encountered by people and pets. Nests are abandoned before winter and only the queens survive the winter. In the spring she emerges from hiding to start a new nest and colony.

The yellowjackets are medium sized wasps marked with black and yellow bands or stripes that build nests below or above the ground (Figure 4). Subterranean nests are often built in rotten stumps, under landscape timbers and firewood piles, and in the sides of terraces, gullies or ditches. Above ground nests occur in barns between stacks of baled hay or straw, under porches, in block voids and wall voids of buildings (Figure 5). The eastern and southern yellowjackets are two common species found in the South. Both species are very aggressive when nesting sites are approached and intruders are often stung repeatedly before they can retreat. People are often stung by yellowjackets while mowing grass, walking behind tractors that are plowing or excavating dirt or walking through wooded and brushy areas. Nests located in wall voids may threaten people inside the home when individual yellowjackets enter a room through openings around electrical outlets.

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Photo by Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Figure 4
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Figure 4
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Photo by Georgia Forestry Commission Archive, Georgia Forestry Commission, Bugwood.org
Figure 5
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Figure 5

The bald-faced hornet (aerial yellowjacket), is not a true hornet. It’s an aerial nesting yellowjacket that prefers to build nests in trees, bushes, and shrubs (Figure 6). The bald-faced hornet is marked with a white face and is considerably larger than the other yellowjackets. The nest is very similar in size and shape to a yellowjacket’s nest and it can pose a serious threat to people when built close to the ground.

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Photo by Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Figure 6
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Figure 6
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Photo by Robert W. Matthews, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org
Figure 7
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Figure 7

The European hornet is the only true hornet in North America. It was unknowingly brought to the U.S. around 1850 from Europe and prefers to build its nests in tree cavities, chimneys, wall voids, and hollow porch posts (Figure 7). This hornet is attracted to lights at night and is often a nuisance to people who like to sit on the porch and “chew the fat”. It is a relatively large wasp and is reddish brown with lighter markings around the head and abdomen. It is reluctant to sting when encountered away from the nest. However, do not swat at the one buzzing your head, you may provoke a sting. The nests are large and may be protected by several hundred stinging wasps.

The guinea wasp is often confused with the yellow-jacket because of similar black and yellow markings (Figure 8). It is probably encountered more than any other paper wasp. It will nest under mailboxes, propane tank tops, above doorways, under decks and porches; on playground equipment and in shrubbery and brush piles. The nest is usually small (20 wasps) and is attached by a single pedicel.

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Photo by Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Figure 8
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Figure 8

The red wasp is found more often along river and creek banks in trees and bushes. However, large nests are common around barns and other out buildings. Several nests containing over 500 wasps were removed from an idle chimney. This wasp is larger than the guinea wasp and is reddish brown in color (Figure 9). The nest is usually larger than the guinea wasp’s.

The bumble bees and honey bees are easily recognized. The bumble bees are represented by several species; some large and others only slightly larger than the honey bee (Figure 10).

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Photo by Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Figure 9
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Figure 9
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Photo by Harry Pratt, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bugwood.org
Figure 10
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Figure 10

Bumble bees nest underground in pastures, orchards, yards and parks; under clumps of matted straw or grass and in abandoned bird houses and animal burrows. Most bumble bees are covered with black and yellow hairs over much of the body. They are often confused with the not-sohairy carpenter bee. Bumble bees are very aggressive and may often pursue an intruder for hundreds of feet. People who mow large fields, pastures or orchards are often stung by bumble bees. Otherwise, most stings occur around flowers while bees are feeding.

Honey bees naturally nest in trees with cavities, but when such sites are limited, they will choose attics or walls in houses and other buildings. Rarely they will build a hive in the open air attached to a tree branch (Figure 11). A honey bee stings only once. The stinger has inverted barbs down the sides and when it’s thrust into the skin, the barbs catch the skin. As the bee attempts to fly away, the stinger is pulled from the body along with the venom sac (Figure 12). The Africanized honey bee is sure to spread throughout the southeastern U. S. over the next 10 years. The venom of this bee is not any more treacherous than that of our familiar honey bees; however, the African bee is very aggressive and attacks with a vengeance.

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Photo by Terry S. Price, Georgia Forestry Commission, Bugwood.org
Figure 11
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Figure 11
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Photo by A. Burns Weathersby, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org
Figure 12
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Figure 12

Fire ants have become a major nuisance throughout much of the South. The red and black imported fire ants were introduced into the United States from South America (Brazil and Uruguay). The southern fire ant is a native species. Their mounds are common in pastures, lawns, parks, golf courses, and along roadsides (Figure 13). Stings from the red imported fire ant always cause intense burning and produce necrotic pustules that itch for days (Figure 14). Fire ants can be distinguished from most other ants by having two nodes on the pedicel. The venom contains a potent alkaloid and only a trace of protein.

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Photo by Terry S. Price, Georgia Forestry Commission, Bugwood.org
Figure 13
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Figure 13
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Photo by Murray S. Blum, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org
Figure 14
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Figure 14
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