In your yard: briefs about bees and wasps


Bees and wasps provide significant benefits—pollination—when they buzz around our gardens. As they move in and out of flowers, they transfer pollen, which is sometimes heavy and sticky, from male to female parts of the flowers.

Honeybees are the best-known pollinators and are vitally important. Without them, for example, this almond grove would produce no almonds. The United States almond industry, one of the largest in the world, completely depends on them. No honeybees = no almonds. Pollinating insects increase fruit or seed quality or quantity of thirty-nine of the fifty-seven major crops worldwide. Other insects are important in their own way, too: They aerate and fertilize soil, help decompose organic matter, aid in controlling pest insects, and are a food source for other animals.

A group of almond trees in a grove.

Almond Grove (wanderbored / Flickr; CC BY 2.0)


There are about 250 bumblebee species, Bombus spp., most of them inhabiting the Northern Hemisphere. Like honeybees, they’re social insects and feed on nectar and collect pollen to feed their young. Beneficial as pollinators, it’s a good thing when they visit our plants. The females can sting but aren’t aggressive and seldom do unless really provoked or their nest is threatened. Bumblebees form colonies that are much smaller than those of honeybees, with as few as fifty members.

Here’s how to tell honeybees and bumblebees apart: Honeybees tend to be slender, more wasp-like, and have a more pronounced pattern of stripes. Some bumblebees are bigger than honeybees, and some aren’t, but all are fuzzier and fatter and usually have blocks of color rather than a series of stripes.

Broken-belted Bumblebee, which is black with yellow stripes, clinging to a lavendar flower.

Broken-belted Bumblebee, Bombus soroeensis (Ivar Leidus / Wiki; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Eastern Carpenter Bees

Eastern Carpenter Bees, Xylocopa virginica, are most often seen in the eastern U.S. Males are large—about 1.0-inch (25 mm) long—but don’t worry, they can’t sting, and the females seldom do. Their name comes from their behavior of burrowing into wood to place their nests. They can be destructive if they excavate year after year in the same tunnel system, but even then, the damage is rarely significant. Carpenter bees are beneficial because they pollinate as they move among plants, collecting pollen to feed their young.

Three Eastern Carpenter Bees perched on a lavendar flower.

Eastern Carpenter Bees (David Illig / EOL; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Valley Carpenter Bee

As if to prove that not all carpenter bees are the typical black and yellow comes the pretty Valley Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, one of only three carpenter bee species found in the western U.S. The males are the bright color you see below; females are metallic black.

A gold-colored Valley Carpenter Bee standing on a gray twig.

Valley Carpenter Bee (Ludovic Ivsic / Wiki; CC BY-SA 4.0)



Hover flies

What do you think? Is the insect below a honeybee or a bumblebee? Aren’t sure? Actually, that’s a trick question because it’s neither! As the title says, it’s a fly resembling a bumblebee. Bumblebees can sting, but hover flies don’t, so looking like something dangerous is an advantage. There are 6,000 species worldwide, and, as their name says, they hover as they feed on nectar and spread pollen. They’re harmless, don’t sting, and are very beneficial, some as pollinators and others as predators of pest insects, such as aphids.

Hover fly standing on a green leaf.

Hover fly, family Syrphidae (Orangeaurochs / Flickr; CC BY 2.0)

Paper nest wasps

Paper nest wasps, polistes spp., are called “social wasps” because they live in colonies, much like honeybees do, with a queen and her workers. Most of us are familiar with them, as they often nest near doors and windows. The only other social wasps are the more aggressive yellow jackets.

Paper nest wasps facing off against each other on a white surface.

Paper nest wasps, Polistes spp., in combat (WW; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Yellow jacket wasps

Yellow jacket wasps, Vespula spp., are so-called “social wasps” because they live in colonies, much like honeybees, with a queen and her workers. Their nests are usually underground but also found in places like wall voids or ceilings of buildings.

Yellow jackets are beneficial, as they feed all summer on insect pests, including the caterpillars that plague our vegetable gardens. They largely go unnoticed until fall, when their prey begins to disappear for the winter, and they set their sights on the sweet taste of sugar water in hummingbird feeders. They will die off in the winter, with only their queen surviving. She will hibernate and then start a new colony the following spring.

Yellow jacket females can deliver a painful sting and can do it repeatedly. When a bee stings, it’s a death sentence for the bee. They’re most aggressive when their nest is disturbed, and most stings occur then.

#Eastern Yellow Jackets standing on a red-colored grape jelly feeder meant for orioles.

Eastern Yellow Jackets feeding on grape jelly in an oriole feeder (WW; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

All about honeybees

Verified by ExactMetrics