Growing up, I was a girl who ran screaming from spiders, bees, wasps, some beetles, scary looking bugs. I had some reason for running, if not for screaming: I was (and presumably still am) systemically allergic to the stings of insects, even those as small as a sweat bee. And I had been stung as a barefoot 9-year old by a saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea) in our suburban Virginia lawn, near the swingset. (Look up the saddleback — it’s one beautiful bug, if venomous.) I don’t have many memories from that age but the pain of those sharp poison-tipped arrows is one that lingers.
Over the years, what with gardening and hiking in the woods, I’ve lost my fear of most insects. I’m often found these days standing waist deep in plants, taking photos as bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and other insects buzz, flit, and creep around me.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to offer a few posts about various insects seen in my garden here in central New Hampshire. Today, let’s start with wasps and bees.
Wasps — along with bees and ants — are part of the order Hymenoptera, suborder Apocrita, which is Latin for “sting” or “needle” (though not all bees, ants, and wasps sting). Wasps and bumblebees can withdraw their stinger and reuse it, but other bees, like honeybees, have barbs on their stingers, which pulls their venom sacs out of their abdomens and kills them. The order Hymenoptera also contains the suborder Symphyta, which are the sawflies, horntails, and wood wasps; adults can resemble true wasps but they don’t have a wasp’s narrow waist.
Unlike bees, most species of wasps aren’t intentional pollinators — they may spread pollen that’s incidentally gotten on their wings or bodies — but some do collect pollen, including, unsurprisingly, pollen wasps (subfamily Masarinae) as well as fig wasps (subfamily Agaonidae), who are the only pollinators of nearly 1000 species of figs.
The vast majority of wasps are solitary wasps, most of which are parasitic, i.e., they lay their eggs in the larval bodies of other insects (and sometimes in ants); those prey insects remain alive until the larvae hatch and eat them. Parasitic wasps provide some control of insect pests like whitefly, borers, aphids, etc.
The SOLITARY WASPS include ichneumonoid wasps, with the largest number of species of any insect in North America, about 4700 recognized species (families Braconidae and Ichneumonidae); spider wasps (ichneumonoids in the family Pompilidae), which prey on spiders; thread-waisted wasps (Sphecidae); cuckoo wasps (Apidae); sand wasps (Bembix americana, Bembix pruinosa), whose females sometimes socialise to ward off intruders; tiny parasitic Chalcid wasps; the cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus), which can be 2″ longer or more, pollen wasps (in the Vespidae subfamily but not social and also recognised in a separate family, the Masarinae), the Crabronidae wasps, et al.
I’m a big fan of the great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus). This is a solitary wasp that lives in a little hole in the ground. It’s not aggressive or territorial like social wasps (paper wasps, yellow jackets, hornets) that live in hives or nests together; it has no tribe to defend. It really likes swamp milkweed flowers (Asclepias incarnata). (Also shown on A. incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’ — white — and on veronicastrum.)
Similar in size is the great black wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus), another solitary digger wasp, whose length can reach over 1.5 inches.
Some other wasps I’ve seen here include the also-solitary thread-waisted wasp (family Sphecidae) of some sort, below on an allium bloom.
Here’s another thread-waisted wasp, species Eremnophila aureonotata:
This is a Crabronidae wasp (which used to be classed under the family Sphecidae but now has its own family), in some mint:
Below is an Ichneumon wasp I first noticed last week, probably in the Ichneumonini tribe, which includes at least 60 species. It’s hard to identify one individual Ichneumon wasp unless it’s your life’s work. (If you know who this is, let me know!)
SOCIAL WASPS (family Vespidae) include yellow jackets (Vespula spp.), the very aggressive bald-faced hornets (Dolichiovespula maculata) and giant hornets (Vespa crabro), European paper wasps (Polistes dominula), Northern paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus), potter wasps (including Eumenes fraterna) and their closely related cousins mason wasps (subfamily Eumeninae, including the four-toothed mason wasp, Monobia quadridens, and a similar species, Pseudodynerus quadrisectus), et al.
There can be some solitary wasps that show social characteristics, so the line between the two types of wasps isn’t hard and fast.
Here are a few from the garden:
Blackjacket (Vespula consobrina) on fennel:
Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichiovespula maculata), front and back view; there is also a fly that mimics a bald-faced hornet.
Moving on to BEES … Which also come in solitary and social flavours:
Social bees include those we’re most familiar with, bumblebees (genus Bombus), those “stocky, fuzzy, and yellow (or orange) and black” bees that you sometimes find moving around, slowly, when temperatures are as low as 50F (though they can’t take off until their flight muscles are at about 85F); and honeybees, including European Honeybees (Apis mellifera), which are not native to the U.S. but are often kept in hives here.
“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.” ― Ray Bradbury,
An assortment of bumblebees (Bombus sp.):
And European honeybees (Apis mellifera):
Solitary bees, who rarely sting, include carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica and other species), which look like bumblebees except their black abdomen is shiny and hairless; sweat bees (family Halictidae), though some are social; mining bees (family Andrenidae); mason and leafcutter bees (family Megachilidae), including the European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum); plasterer bees (family Colletidae); long-horned bees (Melissodes; and others.
Here’s a European wool carder bee …. they rarely settle, so these were lucky shots.
These are mining bees (Adrena sp):
Twofer: a female Melissodes spp. (long-horned bee) on the left and a native Megachile spp. (leafcutter bee) on the right:
Sweat bees (possibly Agapostemon virescens):
Identified as a plasterer bee (Colletes spp.) but looks a lot like the mining bee, above, so I’m not really sure; bees (and flies) can look so similar:
There are more than 25,000 species of bee worldwide, with about 4,000 species in the U.S.
Insect Identification and BugGuide on Facebook are both excellent crowd-sourcing groups for identifying insects. If you’re not on Facebook, the Bug Guide.Net website is also good but takes longer for a response.
Univ. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Field Station, Amazing Ichneumons (Family Ichneumonidae), 26 Jan. 2016.
Native Bees of New England, Rehan Lab at University of New Hampshire. Excellent photos, lists many bees you don’t see every day.
Bees, Ants, Wasps, and Similar Insects of New Hampshire (53 listed with photos)
ID native bees: pictures of and information on native bees, University of Minnesota. The families included are Colletidae (Colletes, Hylaeus), Adrenidae (Adrena, Calliopsis), Halictidae (Halictus, Lasioglossum, Agapostemon, Sphecodes, Augochlora, Augochlorella), Megachilidae (Osmia, Megachile, Heriades, Hoplitis, Coelioxys, Anthidium), and Apidae (Bombus, Anthophora, Namada, Ceratina, Treiepeolus, Melissodes, Xylocopa, Apis Mellifera).