Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ October 2020

Nurturing Nature

The Buzz on Common Bees and Wasps in Your Yard

By Jennifer McGuire Cox

When people see what they think is a bee, many tense up, some scream, and others simply run away.  Yet bees are generally not aggressive and some that we think are bees aren’t even bees at all!

Bees vs. Yellow Jackets

Bees are best known for their role in pollinating plants and are often busy spring through fall searching for flowers to collect pollen and nectar to consume themselves or to bring back to their nests.  To help them in this, their bodies are very hairy to collect as much pollen as possible.  They often tend to have dull coloring and some even have “pollen pants” or pollen sacs, structures on their hind legs that they use for storing pollen.


Bees can come in various colors and sizes, but the most common ones that we might notice in our yard are honeybees, bumble bees, and carpenter bees.  Honeybees tend to be golden yellow to brown in color and usually ¾ of an inch long.  Though they seem ubiquitous in our yards today, these bees are actually not native, or originally found, in North America and came here by way of European colonists and settlers.

Bumble bees and carpenter bees, while about the same length as honeybees, tend to be a lot chunkier and darker colored, appearing mostly black with fuzzy yellow to golden patches on their bodies.

Bumble Bee

Often mistaken for bees, yellow jackets (which are actually wasps!) have bright yellow and black stripes on their bodies, are hairless, and have a tiny waist between their thorax (middle body section) and their abdomen (the insect’s bottom) that bees lack.  These last two characteristics are shared by all wasps and, while not all are yellow and bright, wasps do tend to be brightly colored.  Yellow jackets can, unfortunately, be very aggressive, especially in the fall when they grow hungry as food sources grow scarce.  It is they that tend to give bees, and people who think they’re actually bees, a bad wrap.  While most wasps are not aggressive, yellow jackets are social and have a communal nest.  Social wasps tend to be more territorial and aggressive.

The Truth about Stingers

Carpenter Bee

Many think that, because bees have stingers, they’re bad and something to avoid or get rid of.  But did you know that many bees don’t even have stingers and, at the end of the day, they just want to be left alone to find pollen and nectar (and help us pollinate our plants!), not bother themselves with humans?

While the worker honeybees in our yards do have stingers, they will refrain from using them unless they feel threatened and left with no choice.  This is because, if a honeybee stings something or someone, it cannot remove the stinger from the victim.  This is due to the stinger’s barbed structure, which means, when trying to separate itself from the victim, it often also pulls part of its digestive tract, muscles, and nerves with it, causing it to die.

Yellow Jacket (Wasp)

In the case of bumble bees and carpenter bees, only females have stingers and, unlike honeybees, can sting more than once.  However, unless they feel threatened, or they feel their nest is at risk, they tend to leave humans alone.

Yellow jackets, in contrast, have stingers that they can use repeatedly and don’t easily back down.  When we think of aggressive “bees” chasing us and stinging us, we’re probably actually thinking of yellow jackets!

Carpenter Bees vs. Bumble Bees

Upon first glance, the carpenter bee and the bumble bee look almost indistinguishable:  both are chunky bees and are mostly black with some yellow.  One key difference however is the abdomen, the back or bottom part of their body.  Carpenter bees have a “shiny hiney,” or a hairless abdomen, versus the hairy abdomen of the bumble bee.

While they look alike, these two bees live in different places.  Carpenter bees are solitary and, as are you might already know if you have a wooden deck or fence, they nest in unpainted, weathered, or bare softwoods, burrowing tunnels in the wood to lay their eggs.  Bumble bees, on the other hand, live together in a ground nest.  Starting with just one overwintering queen, the nest will build over the course of the spring and summer to anywhere from 50-400 bees.  Nests are often found in abandoned rodent burrows, near or under stones and logs, and under leaf and grass clippings.

Yellow Jackets vs. Ground Bees vs. Bumble Bee Nests

Groundnesting Bee Colony

Not every hole you see in the ground means you have yellow jackets.  Actually, most holes are not caused by these wasps, as not only do bumble bees nest in the ground but other native ground bee species as well.  How do you tell the difference?  First off, yellow jackets don’t usually appear until July, whereas bumble bees and other native bees emerge during the spring.  In the case of ground bees, while they are solitary (they don’t come together to build a shared nest), they do sometimes aggregate together in the same area, which could result in dozens of small holes in a given area roughly the body width of a bee.  These bees are pretty harmless, with underdeveloped stingers and even weaker venom than social bees such as honeybees.  They and their holes should be left alone.

Yellow Jacket Nest

The entrance to a yellow jacket nest is a lot larger in comparison to ground bees, about the size of a quarter or more and may or may not be hidden.  If the nest is in a low-traffic area, you can leave it alone until the late fall, when a hard frost will kill the males and workers and, in the winter, safely remove the nest from the ground.  If you cannot wait, once you have found the entrance hole, put a clear glass bowl over the entrance (dawn and dusk are best, as yellow jackets are less active then).  Make sure the edges are sealed tightly to the ground, adding soil or sand around the edge if you have to.  The yellow jackets will become stuck and die off after several days.

Tips for Discouraging Carpenter Bees Naturally
  • Put out a sacrificial piece of wood near where carpenters frequently burrow.
  • Paint or seal any exposed wood around your home.
  • Make a citrus spray by boiling citrus fruit in a small pot of water for 10-15 minutes.  Put the liquid in a spray bottle and target it at the nest site or place where the bees are burrowing.
  • Make lots of noise, by either talking loudly or having a speaker where they are active.  The vibrations from the sound will disorient the bees and they may abandon their nest.
  • Spray essential oils at the nest or burrowing site, including peppermint and lemon.
Tips for Discouraging Yellow Jackets Naturally
  • Plant plants that are naturally repellant to yellow jackets, such as wormwood, spearmint, thyme, and lemon grass.
  • Use essential oils, such as peppermint, or a blend of lemongrass, geranium, and clove essential oils.
  • Cut up fresh cucumbers into slices and put on an aluminum pie dish where you know yellow jackets frequent.

[Jennifer McGuire Cox is a naturalist at Brookside Nature Center and Maydale Conservation Park.  She is also a certified Maryland Master Naturalist; she lives on Belton Road.]   ■

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