Bees and wasps are probably our most familiar insects, visiting our gardens from spring until autumn. Bees perform a vital role because they pollinate flowers so that we can enjoy apples, tomatoes and flowers each year. Wasps are also useful to gardeners and farmers because they eat many types of insect pests. Bees and wasps are disliked by many people because of their ability to sting or form large swarms.
Bumble bees are the best known. They look too big to fly and their striped, hairy bodies and familiar 'buzz' are an essential part of any garden in summer. There are 25 species in Britain and they are not all striped! They form small colonies of no more than a few hundred individuals. Each colony is headed by the 'queen bee' who lays eggs while worker bees collect pollen and nectar to keep the colony supplied. They are very important as pollinators for farmers and gardeners. Honey bees are smaller and less hairy than bumble bees. More than 2,000 beekeepers keep colonies of honey bees in London. Honeybees form huge colonies of as many as 20,000 individuals, all a single 'queen's offspring. As well as honey, beeswax can be obtained from their hives.
There are seven species of wasp which form colonies in the UK, including the 'hornet'. They are all easily identified by their distinctive yellow and black stripes which act as a warning that they sting! Queen wasps hibernate during the winter and start looking for a nest site in spring. They make a nest of paper from chewed up wood fibres and start laying eggs. The wasp larvae are fed on caterpillars, spiders and aphids which the workers catch for them. Worker wasps love to eat nectar or anything sugary, such as rotting fruit. A queen wasp can lay as many as 2,000 eggs each day. No wonder wasp colonies can grow to over 20,000 individuals in just a few weeks!
Not all bees and wasps live in colonies. There are more than 200 species of solitary bees and wasps in the UK. Solitary bees lay their eggs in cells hidden away in soft sand, soil or mortar, providing each egg with its own food supply. Perhaps the best known solitary bee is the 'leaf-cutter' which is responsible for cutting neat little semi-circles from the leaves and flowers of roses. Solitary wasps lead very similar lives to solitary bees, except that many of them are parasitic, laying their eggs inside the bodies of other insects. The larva then grows inside the living host until it is ready to turn into a wasp. Some solitary wasps are important for controlling many pest species.
Many bees and wasps build large nests which can be home to more than 20,000 insects. They build nests in secluded places such as trees, lofts, sheds, nest boxes and compost heaps. While bees and wasps will defend their nests, they are unlikely to attack you unless you get too close. If possible, it is best to leave their nests well alone. Remember that bumble bees will never attack you if left alone. If you want a bumble bee nest removed, you should only use experts. We do not provide this service so you should contact your local beekeepers association for advice. Pest controllers usually destroy wasp nests as they are difficult to relocate. We provide this service for a fee.
When the population of the honeybee hive gets too big, the queen flies out of the nest taking a cloud of worker bees with her. The flying swarm can look very frightening, especially if it all lands on a tree. This usually only happens for a short while as other bees scout around looking for a suitable site to build a nest, such as in the hollow of a tree. While a swarm can be intimidating, there is usually little reason to be afraid. Swarming bees are all gorged with honey and are normally quite passive. Provided you keep well away from the swarm, it is not at all dangerous. If you discover a swarm, call the local beekeepers association. They will try to arrange for a beekeeper to take the swarm away. Make sure the bees are housed, not destroyed. A charge may be made.
Many types of bee and wasp can sting. The sting is hidden inside their bodies and is full of venom. Bees and wasps will not normally attack you unless they feel threatened, such as if you get too close to the entrance to their nest or try to obstruct it. Bees can only sting once as their internal organs are destroyed and they die quickly. Wasps can sting many times.
If you are stung by a bee or wasp, carefully remove the sting:
In late summer wasps can become a nuisance if you are enjoying a picnic. Worker wasps are at their highest numbers at this time of year and they adore eating anything sugary, particularly jam and beer! When they start to pester, the worst thing you can do is to wave your arms about and try to scare them away as this seems to attract more wasps and makes it more likely that they will sting you. The best thing to do is place a plate of jam or glass of beer a short distance away from you. The wasps will quickly discover this and should soon stop pestering you.
Wasps are attracted by windfall apples and other soft fruit. You can often find scores of wasps in orchards enjoying sugary leftovers on the ground. If you gather windfall fruit, pick up the fruit carefully or wear thick gloves just in case a wasp has got there before you. Otherwise, there is a chance that you might startle it and it will sting you.
Leaf cutter bees are among our most common solitary bees. They are distinctive because of the bright orange pollen brush on their back legs. They are very important pollinators but also cut out distinctive semi-circles from the leaves and petals of roses and other plants. After they have cut out the leaf, they roll it on their underside and fly off to their nest. The leaf will then be rolled into a neat package with food and a single egg inside. The nest usually only contains two to three eggs and may be found among logs or old tree stumps. While their activities can be irritating when they decide to pick on your prize roses, the problem is very short-lived and any attempt to discourage them will be ineffective. The benefit they provide is much greater than the damage they do.
Hoverflies look like bees and wasps from a distance except that they hover and only have one pair of wings like all other flies. They eat many pest insects and so are useful in the garden. Once you get to notice the difference between hoverflies and bees and wasps, you will see they are quite different and there is no need to be alarmed by them.
The benefit that bees and wasps provide gardeners and farmers far outweighs any nuisance they might cause. There is growing concern that the number of bees is declining due to disease and changes to the countryside so there is a good argument for taking measures to encourage them. London Wildlife Trust recommends that we try to live with bees and wasps and only attempt to interfere when they are causing a serious nuisance. They recommend these actions:
Contact the British Beekeepers Association for leaflets or details of local beekeepers: National Agriculture Centre, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire CV8 2LZ and 024 7669 6679.
We also can provide contacts of people who will remove bee or wasps nests in unsuitable places. For more information on bees, wasps or other pests please email us or telephone 01329 236100.
Information on this page was written by Steve Micklewright and produced by London Wildlife TrustHarling House, 47-51 Great Suffolk Street London SE1 OBS.