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Bees and wasps are both members of the insect world. They have similarities but also major differences in the ways they live, reproduce and survive to the next season. One interesting aspect of their lives is nesting. Bee nest vs Wasp nest. In some ways they seem similar, but there are many differences as well.
Among the many types of bees and wasps some are social insects. They live together in groups and share the burden of raising young from eggs laid by one reproductive female. This includes our honey bee and bumble bee of course because they live in colonies.
How a Bee Nest is Different from a Wasp Nest
The nesting habits of insects varies and how they care for their young varies a great deal.
Social vs Solitary Bees and Wasps
Wasps are defined by the same characteristics. Some types of wasps (and bees) are solitary with the reproductive female selecting a site for a home and laying eggs. After provisioning the nest with food, she never meets her young.
Others live in small social groups or colonies. It is these social insects that we most often notice. Their homes are most like to be involved in discussing the differences of a bee nest vs wasp nest. Why, they are simply the most noticeable to us.
How to Tell the Difference between Bee Nests and Wasp Nests
Seeing a group of insects close together in one location seems to indicate a nest. This may be true and requires caution. But, not every congregation of insects is a nest. They may simply be feeding.
A nest is a place where food is usually stored – but primarily young are being reared. Regardless of the type of insect, it is a wise idea to stay respectfully away from any such nests.
Most will feel protective of their home and young and may chase you away. Even the hard working honey bee will sting to defend their home. Perhaps you don’t intend to do any harm – but the bees do not know this.
There are several factors used to identify the type of nest we see. First, it is good to know how to identify a honey bee or wasp. Also, understanding the nesting habits of insects in your region can be very useful.
Is it a Bee Nest or a Wasp Nest?
The most common nests we find are wasps’ nest. Early in the season, they are very small but can grow rather large. Over the Summer months, I have seen them reach a width of 6″ and above.
A small grey oval structure hanging from the eaves of a roof or old building with a few protective wasps on the surface is common here.
They may build a nest inside a closed cavity but most wasp nests are in the open – exposed and easy to see.
An entrance to a cavity with a steady stream of bees coming and going may be a honey bee hive. However, it could be other wasps or hornets too. We need to learn more about these interesting insects.
Honey Bees Live In Large Families
Most honey bees live in large colonies inside cavities. These social insects live in hives provided by a beekeeper or empty cavities in trees. Sometimes, they choose other enclosed spaces such as the walls of a home.
This can be a big problem because a beehive is not seasonal. If nothing causes them to die, they will still be there next year… and so on. Homeowners often pay a lot of money to have beehives removed from their home.
Some solitary bees burrow in the ground. Even Bumble Bees use abandoned rodent burrows to build a home for their small colony.
However, honey bees are not ground dwellers. Female workers make beeswax with special glands on the underside of their abdomen.
Using wax to construct sheets of honeycomb, they store food and rear young inside the hive. A wasp nest will not have beeswax.
Solitary Bees Live Alone
Most of the bees in the world are solitary bees that nest alone. While you may find many nests in one central location, each queen maintains her own home. Here she lays eggs and provisions it with food.
Mason bees are a good example of a beneficial solitary bee. They are great pollinators and often live in cracks in masonry, hollow stems or tubes provided by homeowners.
Different Kinds of Wasps Nests
One of the major differences between bees and wasps is their nesting characteristics. Wasps build aerial nests, ground nests or nests inside cavities.
Wasps do not have wax glands and cannot make honeycomb. Their grey nests of paper-like material are made with chewed wood. The exception is the solitary Mud Dauber wasp who builds a home with mud.
The queen wasp begins the nest on her own and cares for her young. Once new adults emerge, they take part in care of the young and the nest expands. It can grow quite large.
However, they are not reused. When the season winds down and all the young are mature, the site is abandoned.
The most common types of wasp nests that we notice are those of the paper wasps. Several different types of wasps build these grey paper homes.
Yellow Jacket Wasp Nest
Another member of the wasp family that is commonly called a bee is the Yellow Jacket Wasp. This insect is commonly misidentified as a honey bee. But, honey bees and yellow jackets are very different.
Yellow Jackets routinely live in the ground. The colony can grow quite large and is often unnoticed until mid-Summer when colony population is at its peak.
Though they serve a useful purpose in pest control, they are not one of the most loved insects by most people.
Their aggressive insect nature makes them a stinging hazard. Having a colony of yellow jackets in your yard is not the best situation.
If you can not (or do not want to) destroy the nest, mark it clearly and advise everyone to stay far away.
Using yellow jacket traps early in the season may reduce the number of colonies later on – you can even make your own yellow jacket trap.
Hornet Nests are Not Bee Hives
Cartoons featuring honey bees flying from what looks like a hornet nest always make me laugh. I don’t know who started this but I assure you – you will not find a honey bee colony in a hornet nest.
Hornets nests grow very large and really catch the eye. But you may not see them until Winter after the leaves are off the trees.
Hornets are closely related to wasps and they build large paper nests. Usually located high in the tree tops, these too will be abandoned when Winter arrives.
Hornets are very aggressive around their home-stay away. If they are not located near a human space, leave them.
Hornets do a good job of catching flies and other insect pests. Even the parasitic fly that causes – Zombie Bees may fall prey to hornets.
European Hornets Kill Honey Bees
We have several types of hornets around our area that do little harm. However, there is one type of hornet colony that I will destroy when found. Like Yellow Jackets, they are predators and can be a serious pest of honey bee colonies.
This is the large yellow European Hornet – similar to the Asian Hornet but already established in the US.
They often nest in tree cavities though I have seen them living inside walls. Relentless in attacking honey bee colonies in mid-Summer, they are not welcomed at my home.
Should You Destroy Wasps?
Wasps are predators that kill insects including honey bees. They are also responsible for many stings received by humans each year.
And trust me, a wasp sting hurts much worse than a honey bee sting – at least for me.
The public’s fear of bees and other stinging insects often results in a call to destroy their nests. Is this the best thing to do? Maybe not.
While there are situations when colony destruction is called for, wasps do us a great service. If you have a garden, these insect predators kill many bugs and insects that can harm your plants.
Here on my little homestead, we do destroy nests that are large and near areas where we walk a lot. However, those that are high in the eves of the barn are left to provide some insect control.
Wasps Nest Last Only a Few Months
Because they are not reused each year, a wasp nest only lasts a 3-4 months. Starting out small in the Spring, they are often not noticed until late Summer when the population is at its peak.
By the time cold weather arrives, the site will be abandoned. The queen will hibernate in leaves, bark or garden debris. In the Spring, the queen wasp builds a new nest.
Honey Bee Swarm is Not a Nest
Honey bee colonies reproduce by swarming. In this natural process, half the members of the colony leave to find a new home.
On their journey, they temporarily sit down in a nearby tree or bush. Seeing this mass of bees hanging from a limb may seem to indicate the presence of a nest.
This is not usually true. In a few hours, the swarm will leave to journey to their new home. But occasionally, the swarm is unable to decide on a new site.
In this case, they begin to build comb attempting to nest in the open. If you see this happening, call a local beekeeping association to see if they can help. Most exposed honey bee nests do not survive Winter.
Expect a wasp nest to be active for 3-4 months during the warm time of year. By the time cold weather arrives, the nest will be abandoned.
Honey bees do not normally nest in the ground. You are likely seeing a type of wasp, such as the Yellow Jackets wasp. They are be dangerous -stay away.
Any adults not killed may return to the nest site for a day or so. They are attracted to the pheromones left behind.
Bumble bees nest in pre-existing cavities. Often the use an empty rodent burrow in the ground or openings in rock walls. They nests are not very large and will be gone after the season.
Bees and wasps that nest for one season will not return to the nest after Winter. Honey bees typically maintain any active colony year round. If you need honey bees removed, call a beekeeper.
Types of nesting habits include: ground nesters (build nesting in holes in the ground), wood tube nesters (use hollow tubes or plant stems), and cavity nesters (construct homes inside open cavities) such as honey bees that build wax comb inside hollow tree trunks.
A Final Word
Whether you see a bee nest or a wasp nest, you are seeing the next generation of these beneficial insects. Sometimes they must be destroyed for public safety.
Seek professional help in removing honey bee colonies especially in regions with Africanized bees. As for the other types of nests, try to leave them alone and let nature take its course. They benefit our lives in many ways.