A honeybee on common milkweed. BRENDAN J. O'REILLY
A bald-faced hornet, an aerial-nesting wasp. BRENDAN J. O'REILLY
A honeybee swarm. COURTESY JENNCLEARY.COM
Paper wasp. DYET
A hornet's nest. SHERI SPELLMAN
A few people have reached out to me lately asking what to do about one kind of yellow stripey thing or another that’s been hanging out in their domain. Or maybe they’ve been hanging out in the yellow stripey thing’s domain. I guess it’s a matter of whose point of view you choose to take.
Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to review the various kinds of bees and bee-like critters that might be getting into your personal space now that we’re all enjoying the warm summer weather. I’ll also suggest ways to deal with them — or not deal with them and just leave them BEE!
Let’s start with an easy one — carpenter bees. These solitary creatures look like a slightly bigger version of the bumblebee, but with a shiny abdomen. They’re chubby and slow-moving, and you might see them hovering around your eaves or patio furniture. A female carpenter bee will bore a perfectly round hole into a wood surface, then make a 90 degree turn and drill a tunnel parallel to the surface of the wood to lay her eggs. They don’t do a lot of damage, and they rarely sting, but it’s understandable if you don’t want them drilling into your nice cedar decking. And if a woodpecker finds the larvae, it will aggravate the situation, expanding the cavity to get lunch.
The carpenter bee has very sharp mandibles, able to bore through most commonly used woods, even composites like Trex. Hickory, walnut, cherry and oak are usually hard enough to deter them, but you can also deter them by spraying almond, citrus and/or peppermint oil on wood surfaces. It will usually make them look for lodging elsewhere, and you don’t have to poison your home with insecticides to do it.
If you’re lucky, you might see a swarm of honeybees, either hanging on a tree or clumped on the side of a building. Honeybees usually swarm when a colony has the population and resources to split in two. The workers get the queen to lay a few eggs in specially prepared queen cells so the old hive won’t be without a leader, then half the workers and the old queen head off for new quarters. Usually, the bees have a destination picked out ahead of time, but sometimes the swarm might linger for a day or two while a final decision gets made.
A swarm of bees can look intimidating — a big ball of buzzing insects perched in one’s yard can seem alarming. But these bees have loaded themselves up with honey to sustain them until they can start producing in their new digs, and all they want to do is get the queen moved in safely and set up house, so there’s nothing you need to do, unless they decide your attic is their new home of choice. In that case, please call a beekeeper to move them, and do not spray them — an attic full of dead bees and honey is not the solution you’re looking for, unless you’re fond of rats.
On the more intimidating side, the East End is also home to ground-nesting yellowjackets. These are not nice creatures, and they do tend to set up house right under our feet, literally. You would not be the first person to push a lawn mower over a nest of them and find out the hard way that they don’t tolerate intruders. Unlike honeybees, yellowjackets can sting a person multiple times, and their stings are generally much more painful. But like bees, they are an important part of the ecosystem, as they eat many destructive insects, including aphids and grubs. Also like bees, a colony might contain thousands of yellowjackets.
If a nest is turning your yard into a war zone and you have to get rid of them, you can usually eradicate them by pouring a pot of boiling water into the nest. You’ll need to locate the nest entrance ahead of time, then wait until dusk when most of the insects will be home for the night. Bring a good-sized pot of water to boil on the stove, add a dash of dish soap, and pour it over the nest. If there are multiple entrances, it’s best to have one person handling each entrance so the yellowjackets can’t escape. Once the water is poured, cover the entrances with rocks and walk away.
One important note — some bumblebees also nest underground, so please be sure that the nest you’re scalding is a yellowjacket nest, and not harmless bumbles. It’s easy to tell them apart: Yellowjackets are sleek and fast, with clearly jointed bodies. Bumblebees look more like flying panda bears, kind of slow-moving and furry. While bumblebee queens do have stingers, they are very reluctant to use them. And the males, which might fly around to check you out, don’t even have stingers. Bumblebees are great pollinators — protect them!
Paper wasps and hornets are kind of a different story. Easy to recognize, their large gray nests look like they’re made of paper. Each nest might contain thousands of insects, and they tend to respond to a threat en masse, which can result in multiple painful stings. The good news is, like most of their relatives, these bugs are not looking for trouble. If you see a paper wasp nest up a tree or somewhere else that’s where you won’t be in close contact with it as you go about your business, there’s no reason to destroy it. But if a colony sets up house right outside a patio door, for example, you may have no choice. In that case, unless you can knock the nest down early in the season, before it has many residents, you might want to call a professional exterminator.
If you decide to DIY — and I am NOT recommending this! — the best plan is to cover as much of your skin as possible to protect against stings, make sure your kids and pets are safely in the house, and go out early in the morning with two cans of wasp spray. Spray the first can at the nest’s main opening, at the bottom of the nest, and use the other to spray other openings that will become apparent as wasps start to emerge. You might have to spray the nest a second time the next day if the wasps are still active. Once there’s no more activity, knock the nest down and dispose of the pieces.
To prevent stingers like wasps and hornets from settling into your yard in the first place, you can mix a few drops of essential oils in a spray bottle, along with a few squirts of dish soap, fill the bottle with water, give it a good shake and spray it in places where wasps like to build nests — under eaves, under decks and porch roofs, even on the ground where they’ve nested before. Clove, lemongrass, spearmint, peppermint and geranium oil are some of their least favorites. Like many animals, they tend to return to the same locations to nest year after year, so if you can discourage them before they set up house you’ll save yourself — and the wasps — a lot of pain.
The easy solution, of course, is to grab a giant can of insecticide and spray everything, but please don’t do that. Yes, you will kill the wasps and hornets you want to eliminate, but you’ll also kill the honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, ladybugs and other insects that a healthy environment needs to thrive. Also, do you really want to spray poison on the lawn and plants that your children and pets interact with?
One fine body…