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Pest Control – Is It A Wasp or A Bee?

Can you tell them apart?

By Ken Chadwick
As a pest controller covering Manchester, Cheshire and Lancashire it has become apparent
that there is a great deal of confusion, especially in the under forties between wasps and bees
and even between honeybees and bumblebees.
Perhaps in these heath and safety obsessed days schools no longer have the summertime
nature rambles of my youth and that is a great pity.
At a distance it is possible to the untrained eye to confuse wasps and honeybees but
bumblebees should never be in doubt.
The wasp is any insect of the order Hymenoptera and suborder Apocrita that is neither a bee
nor ant but in terms of common understanding we are dealing in North West Britain with just
three species which we term wasps, The Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris), The German
Wasp (Vespula germanica) and the relative newcomer termed the ‘Euro Wasp’
(Dolichovespula media).
The biology of wasps and bees is very different.
In the late autumn a wasps’ nest dies out completely
and is never re-used. The workers and males die but
the newly produced queens hibernate for the winter
before waking in the spring to start nest building.
At the first sign of warmer weather the young
queens emerge from hibernation and commence
nest building, mixing rotten wood with saliva to
make ‘wasp paper’ with which to construct the nest.
She will lay 15 – 20 eggs in cells inside the nest and tend these until the first workers emerge
to take over the nest building process.
Any reports of wasps’ nests prior to June, and
certainly any in late April or May will always turn out
to be a bee species of which there are many.
Wasp nest building continues throughout the summer
and in the autumn the nest produces immature queens
and males which then mate. A single wasps’ nest may
produce over 2000 new queens.
The bee which makes the honey unsurprisingly is the honeybee (Apis mellifera) but a
staggering number of people confuse the honeybee with the bumblebee (Bombus spp.)
The honeybee has an altogether different lifecycle to the wasp, the entire colony surviving the
winter, and hence are seen much earlier in the year.
A feature of the honeybee is the way in which new colonies are formed. In late spring and
throughout the summer the colony will produce new queens which split or ‘bud’ from the old
colony taking several thousand worker bees with them; these are called swarms and can
actually be heard in flight.

A honeybee swarm Manchester 2007

This causes alarm in many people who will then ring a pest control company and declare that
a ‘wasps’ nest’ has just arrived.
Clearly we know immediately that we are dealing with a bee swarm and can often point them
in the direction of a beekeeper who may be able to remove the swarm unharmed.
Contrary to urban myth, and indeed the web sites of many local councils, honeybees are not a
protected species in Britain and there are circumstances where there is no alternative other
than to destroy a colony.
Frequently they establish a colony or ‘hive’ in a chimney stack and where this is venting a gas
fire this is clearly dangerous and it is often necessary to destroy the colony.
After destroying the colony the owner of the property has a legal and moral duty to have any
honeycomb removed from the stack as if it is left in place it will be robbed out by wild or
commercial hive bees, resulting in the death of those colonies.
A responsible pest controller will not destroy a colony unless arrangements to remove the
honeycomb are in place.
The bumblebee has a lifecycle similar to a wasp in that only the new Queens survive the
winter and start new nests in spring. A bumblebees’ nest is an insignificant affair, now where
near as intricate as a wasps’ nest and rarely contains more than 300 workers at most whereas
a honeybee colony or wasps’ nest may have upwards of ten thousand inhabitants.
Another common myth is that bees can only sting once and whilst this is true of the
honeybee, the bumblebee like a wasp, can sting multiple times.
Bumblebees are however extremely placid and will only ever sting as a last resort and
therefore it should rarely be necessary to destroy a bumblebee nest.
Contact us for pest control in Manchester, Cheshire & Lancashire