Bumblebees, Wasps, and Other Pollinators

Insect pollinators are vital. How to identify them and protect them.

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Pollinators

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Wheat

I know that to most people anything in a yellow and black striped jacket is considered bad. The problem is that most insect pollinators can sting you and we all developed a hatred for them as children. Some of these insects are quite beneficial and they are required for good plant pollination. The ones that are the most helpful to humans typically only use their sting as a last resort.

Pollination is required for plants to reproduce and to help maintain not only the beautiful flowers but also the food supply

Of course, you could always go out to your planter beds with paint brushes to help plants reproduce but to avoid that, we need pollinators.  Speaking of planter beds, if you don’t know where to start when building them, I’ve got a step by step guide.

Bees are VITAL to the food production and worldwide plant growth. Sadly, it is difficult to tell all the different pollinators apart but I hope that I can shed some light on it and teach you a little bit about them all.

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Key Bee Pollinators

Bees as a group are some of the most important pollinators. They will leave you alone if you leave them alone and, for the most part, don’t sting. They tend to only sting as a last resort and when threatened. Bees want to move from flower to flower, collecting nectar for younger bees, and grow the next generation. This nectar collection has a nice side effect of moving pollen from flower to flower as well. Dawn to dusk, all they do is work. The two most important are honeybees and bumblebees. I found a handy guide on identifying them so that you can tell them apart!

Honeybees

Honeybee and Flower

Honeybees are the true kings and queens of the bee pollinators. They live in complex colonies of thousands of bees and they serve many purposes beneficial to humans. Not only do they help to pollinate plants, therefore giving us food from vegetables and flowers, but they also form honey that can be harvested. Honeybees can be domesticated and thrive quite well on the land of a bee keeper.  To help these bees the most, start your own hive with this book as your guide on what to do.

Sadly, while these bees are the most beneficial to humans, they tend to be easy to confuse for more aggressive insects such as wasps. While the honeybee will only sting in self defense, many people kill them believing they are killing something that is likely to sting them. Honeybee populations are sharply declining for a number of different reasons from habitat loss to insecticides.

Bumblebees

Bumblebee

Bumblebees are like the big biker guy that’s actually really sweet. They are big, fat, and fluffy with a buzz that you can hear from yards away. Bumblebees can typically be found flying into and bumping into things. Sorry to wax poetic but I just love these guys. They live in much smaller colonies than honeybees with only a few hundred members.

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees aren’t really able to be domesticated so you won’t find them in manmade hives in a backyard. Because of this, they don’t really supply honey to humans.

However, that big, fluffy body is amazing at making the bumblebee a great pollinator. They carry vast amounts of pollen from flower to flower and help keep our food supply strong. Don’t underestimate the power of the enormous bumblebee.

Eastern Carpenter Bees

Carpenter Bee

The bee in front of you is probably an Eastern Carpenter Bee if it is large like a bumblebee but with a black body. The other indicator, other than the vast amounts of fuzz around it’s “shoulders” is the little black shield on it’s back. These guys live an even more solitary life than the bumblebee with even smaller colonies. You probably wonder why it’s called the carpenter bee? That’s because they love to make their nests in freshly milled wood. You must be thinking of the wood pile out back right?

Similar to the bumblebee as well, the carpenter bee is not domesticated so you also won’t see them in hives in a backyard. However, since they eat pollen and nectar as a food source, they are also excellent at moving pollen from plant to plant. These bees typically sting only if they are roughly handled or as a defense so don’t be afraid of them.

Lack of Pollinator Knowledge

The biggest threat to bees, and therefore the food that keeps all of us happy in this world, is the lack of knowledge. For example, while bees are the grand champion pollinators, do you know that butterflies, moths, and even a couple of wasp species are all classified as additional pollinators by the Forest Service? Check out their article on it here at AgAmerica.  There are also several good books about the topic below:

For all of our intelligence, people are still hampered by the belief that all black and yellow insects are the same evil creature. Don’t get me wrong, a bee sting is just about the most painful experience most children have in their young lives. But that sting doesn’t have to stay with you forever.

Big Differences Between Pollinators and Wasps

There are a few key differences that you can typically count on when you are trying to decide whether or not to kill the bug. Please don’t get me wrong, some in my opinion deserve death. But if nothing else, I hope that I can teach you to pause and try harder to figure out if you need to kill the insect.

Body Shape

If you look at the body shape of the insect in front of you, there will usually be a distinct difference between friend and foe. Bees tend to be a little beefier with slightly thicker midsections. Think of bees as the grandma that you want to hug. Wasps on the other hand are the supermodels of this type of insect. They tend to be sleek and thin waisted. Of course, this isn’t always the case for either type of insect but it’s a good start.

How to Tell a Bee From a Wasp

Colors

The insect on your arm, while they all have the same colors, can usually be distinguished by how distinct the colors are. Bees usually have a lot of “fur” and more muted colors. They display golds, browns, ambers, and blacks. Rarely will you see defined stripes on a bee. However, wasps have fairly defined stripes usually. There are typically crisp edges and brighter yellows, with darker blacks. If the insect has bright, defined stripes, then you can consider killing it.

Behavior

My biggest concern for bees is that they typically display friendly, curious behavior.  If you think of a young child and how they walk up to strangers and start talking to them, it’s similar to a bee. They may fly near you or even bump into you. Bees may land on your arm and hang out for a while. They don’t show territoriality or fear like a wasp does. Unfortunately, that means that they encounter people regularly who don’t understand them. Wasps however don’t typically investigate people. They don’t hang out on your arm just because they are curious. Wasps don’t care about people, only that their nest is being threatened.

Insecticide Spray

Pollinators suffer almost as much from insecticides as they do from lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, we have a habit as humans to create something that seems to be amazing without thinking everything through. When we started to treat our crops with broad spectrum insecticides, we were only trying to keep the aphids and the beetles from eating our corn and beans. Sadly, since insecticides kill everything in the insect world, they also killed the pollinators.

If you need an insecticide in your garden, because bugs do happen, please try to choose one that works more specifically for the one you’re trying to kill.  Or at least choose one less harmful to the bees.

Insecticides Kill Pollinators Too

Bees eat the pollen that flowers create and if your crop is laced with insecticide, that will pass to the bees just as easily as other insects. Even organic insecticides will affect pollinators unfortunately. The worst is a class of insecticide called “neonicitinoids.” These cause colony collapse in honeybee colonies. Colony collapse is when an entire honeybee colony just dies off and stops functioning. So instead of the bees being affected if they interacted with the poisoned plant, the entire colony of thousands of bees will die off. This colony collapse is devastating and I would never purchase anything that has been treated with a neonicitinoid or use them in my own garden.

How Can You Help Pollinators?

Plant a Bee Friendly Garden

Pollinator Garden

Bees help to pollinate flowers and plants when they are attracted to them. While they are great workers, the bees don’t simply act as pollinators for our benefit. They are hungry! Blue and yellow flowers with a sweet smell tend to attract the most bees since they have the most nectar and are easiest for bees to see. Flowers that have somewhere for a bee to sit and gather nectar are the best. Think something with sturdy stems and flowers that open in the daytime. The easiest way to do this is to buy a wildflower mix to attract pollinators.  These mixes are inexpensive and work great!  I also found a great guide to planting a bee friendly garden from the Honeybee Conservancy!

Provide a Home For Bees

You know, bees have it tough. They go to work seven days a week and rarely take vacation. They dodge predators and are constantly working on their new home improvement projects. Wait a minute, I’m talking about bees not you. Anyway, the least we can do is provide them a nice little house to come home to. If you have a safe, warm and sheltered place you should consider building a place for bees to live. A bundle of hollow sticks, like this article from the Forest Service, walks you through making.  You could also create a log with holes drilled in it like the USDA recommends.  Be creative!

Keep Bees

Bee Hive

For people who want extra credit and want to do the most they can to help pollinators, you can consider keeping a bee hive with domesticated honeybees. This is a daunting challenge if you don’t have somebody to help you learn but I have great news! Most beekeeping groups are incredibly open about giving you help and information if you have any questions. Don’t hesitate to ask them! I have never met a group more open to helping each other than beekeepers.

Anyway, I would start by reading up a little on how to keep bees in the first place. Beebuilt.com and Mother Earth News both have decent articles on how to keep bees designed for a beginner in mind. I have had a couple of people from the beekeeping community recommend Betterbee.com as a good site for people to buy their supplies, even the bees! They also have some good learning resources as well.

My Hope For Pollinators

Blue Flower

I hope that at least I have educated you how the important pollinator insects are affected by your choices. I would suggest organic gardening techniques, since they are slightly less dangerous to pollinator insects. But also, I hope that the next time you go for a hike or when you are at a picnic, you think before you kill a black and yellow insect that lands on your arm. Look at the colors and the body shape and try to determine if the insect is good or bad. Honestly, if it isn’t threatening you, shoo it away and move on either way.

Final Thoughts

It is vital for us to help these pollinators to maintain and increase their existing populations.  Unless we are going to have farmers out in fields using paintbrushes, we HAVE to help the insect pollinators to succeed. Think before you kill one of these insects, even wasps have their place in the chain of life. Try to make good places for pollinators to live, whether that is a bee house on your fence line or you decide to care for a honeybee colony. Help these pollinators by not treating your plants with broad spectrum insecticides. Work hard to incorporate organic gardening techniques and treat the pollinators in your yard as garden helpers and not something to be feared.

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Head Homeowner

Hey everybody! I'm Sydney, the head homeowner here. Let me know if you have any questions you didn't find the answer to. Tell me what projects you're working on. I love to hear from all my readers.

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