Pollinator’s and Their Defense Mechanisms

What is the difference between bees and those offending hornets?


by Melissa Bravo - July 27, 2015

With all the buzz about bees and pollinators, this week’s article is about the other side of bees. The business end so to speak. We’re talking about those darn stingers.

A recent posting on the Tioga County PA Online Garage Sale Facebook page by Briana Winger regarding a questionable looking hive on the underside of a vehicle she wanted to post for sale, resounded in over 100 comments. Comment’s ranged from how to determine if the offending hive in question was a bee hive, or a hornet nest, to all sorts of antidotal- as well as tried and proven, methods on how to remove it.


So, what is the difference between bees and those offending hornets?

Other than the Africanized honeybee which is known to be more aggressive, most bees are generally peaceful foragers. Let’s take the humble bumble bee for example. The Pennsylvania bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) is just one subspecies of more than 250 species in the genus Bombus – a member of the tribe Bombini for those of you who are interested in the phylogenic’s of bee taxonomy. The familiar looking black and yellow striped body covered in fuzzy hair is a common pollinator here in the Northeast. The bumble bee has a long tongue that it uses to lap up nectar from flowers. As it does, pollen sticks to the bee’s legs and this is how many species of flowering plants are pollinated. Unlike honeybees, the bumble bee does not produce enough honey to over winter the entire colony. They also prefer to next in the ground in shaded areas.

It’s not uncommon for a person to literally run into a pollen laden bumble bee. They are slower moving than honeybees and it’s rather difficult for them to change direction, given the aerodynamics of their shape. It’s the brightly colored female queen and her same-sex workers that can sting you. Unlike in honeybees, a bumblebee’s stinger lacks barbs, which is why you can be stung repeatedly before the bee flies off with her stinger still attached to her abdomen.

Hornets, on the other hand, have a different take on things. Wasps and bees make up two distinct lineages of the group Hymenoptera in the superfamily Apoidea. The most common wasps are from the family Vespidae. You know them as yellow jackets and hornets. Unfortunately, there are another one hundred thousand of these stinging horrors out and about in the world. While some are satisfied to collect nectar or dead carrion for their young, most have evolved to use their stinger to paralyze their prey, often for the sole purpose of using their victim as an incubator.

While some of us only have a mild reaction to the toxic venom injected into our skin, many of us, like myself, have an intense allergic reaction which can quickly lead to anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening condition. A few years ago I literally walked into a nest of white faced hornets on an overgrown honeysuckle laden cow path. Despite a shallow dive into the nearby river which protected me from the rest of the angry mob, I was stung more than a dozen times.

So, swat at a bee if you must, but avoid those white faced hornet’s and yellow striped soda can visitors at all costs.


Writing: Melissa Bravo


Produced by Vogt Media

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