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Oh, my aching muscles...

Bees, Wasps and Hornets Can Be Good Neighbors

By Wendy Tweten

Try Googling “wasps, hornets, yellow jackets.” Sadly, the first half dozen offerings are all about death and destruction—of the insects, that is. It’s a telling glimpse into the human psyche when you see that even the topics of “terrorism” and “mass murder” aren’t dealt with as harshly. Hmm…do wasps, even yellow jackets, really deserve all this fear and loathing?

Of course, the phobia is all about the sting, but—as anyone who spends a great deal of time outdoors can tell you—stinging is an exceedingly rare occurrence. Yes, yellow jackets nesting in untended fields can be downright disagreeable if stumbled upon. And I personally can confirm that bumblebees really hate being scooped up in a flip-flop or squeezed in with a handful of rhody trusses. However, most stinging insects live quite peaceably alongside us, and grant us tremendous benefits in return.

These busy little creatures with the pointy ends are a vital part of our ecosystems—not to mention our economy. Honey bees, of course, are small miracles that not only provide liquid gold for our pancakes, but are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of fruits, flowers, and vegetables; commercially they pollinate about one third of the crop species in the U.S. Other types of bees and some wasps are pollinators as well. Where many wasps really shine is as predators of caterpillars, aphids and other garden pests.

Ouch!  

Reportedly, the record number of stings sustained by one person—who lived to tell the tale—is 2,243, proving that bee stings are much more of a pain than a danger for the 99 percent of us who do not suffer a systemic reaction to bee venom. When a bee or wasp does sting, it’s almost always for one of two reasons: to protect the hive or in response to direct physical contact.

Aside from yellow jackets and Africanized “killer” bees (the latter, thankfully, not found this far north), most bees and wasps of the Pacific Northwest are quite tolerant of humans. I have seen this firsthand in my own garden where bald-faced hornets, mud daubers and European paper wasps routinely nest in the midst of human activity. The deal is this: one sting and they’re out of there. So far, in twenty-five years, only the nest of yellow jackets in the downspout had to be destroyed.

If a sting does occur, it doesn’t have to ruin your day. Here’s the secret: meat tenderizer. The enzyme in meat tenderizer breaks down the protein in bee venom like magic, and it does the job fast. To relieve a sting, apply a paste made of one part unseasoned tenderizer to four parts water. Wash it off within 30 minutes to avoid irritation. Voila! Vamoose venom!

Yellow jackets

Yellow jackets give other wasps a bad name. They are the big, bold, black and caution-sign-yellow fellows, beefier than the gentler paper wasps, and smooth skinned, as opposed to the fuzzy, pale yellow honeybee. Yellow jackets take great offense to our sudden appearance at their (usually) underground nests. Late in the summer they also become picnic pests, though they seem much more intent on dining than stinging, which makes the main worry accidentally sipping one up with the soda. On the plus side, yellow jackets are excellent predators of insect pests including the crane fly that infests our lawns.

Bald-faced hornets

Crunch, crunch. Tiny chewing sounds on a quiet summer’s day may be the busy mandibles of a bald-faced hornet grinding wood fiber from your cedar fence for use in her spectacular, potentially football-sized paper home. If you are lucky enough to have such a nest constructed outside your window you’ll be privileged to watch the girls spending the summer carrying caterpillars home to feed the developing larvae.

Though they’re called hornets, these creatures are in fact a yellow jacket species, one of the social wasps in the family Vespidae. The only true hornet in the U.S., the non-native European hornet, hasn’t yet found its way to Washington and Oregon. Bald-faced hornets and other paper-making wasps deserve a chance; experience has taught me they aren’t nearly as feisty as their reputation suggests. Even the huge, active nest that appeared one summer a few feet from our outdoor dining area never bothered anyone.

Paper wasps

What about those paper nests that look like the builder forgot the walls? You’re probably looking at the work of the European paper wasp, a recent immigrant to the west coast. Slighter and longer legged than a yellow jacket, the paper wasp shares its cousin’s aposematic colors. Their nest is a simple comb with a single layer of exposed cells. The paper wasps that built their nest a foot above my head in my outdoor potting area were surprisingly polite. A warning “bump”—not a sting—first alerted me to their residency.

Too stubborn to abandon my potting shed, I limited my time, moved slowly and kept a wary eye open, but they ignored me for the rest of the season. Like all social wasps, they abandoned their nest in the fall, never to return. The fertile queens found lots of hidey-holes in which they overwintered until a warm March day brought them swarming out in search of new homes.

Mud daubers

The mud dauber takes wasp-waisted to the extreme with an abdomen attached to the end of an impossibly long, narrow “stem.” Solitary wasps, mud daubers are more closely related to bees than they are to social wasps. Frequent visitors to puddles, they gather up mouthfuls of mud to construct their small mud nests. The female then collects spiders which she paralyzes and adds to the nest cells, creating a larder on which she will lay her eggs—and making us once again glad we are not spiders.

Like all solitary wasps, mud daubers are not aggressive and won’t sting unless ill-treated. They are not the most graceful of fliers; members of my local mud dauber population often careen into the humans, but the collisions appear accidental and—if the humans keep their hands to themselves—the wasps simply meander off.

What types of bees and wasps are to be found in your garden? More than just winged stingers, these small creatures come in a variety of sizes, guises and habits. A little less running and screaming and a little more quiet observation will prove that these intriguing insects deserve respect, not fear.

When we think in terms of watch-and-learn, rather than nuke-and-pave, the world is safer for all.  NWGN

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