Field Notes: Bees In The Northwoods

Aug 11, 2020

In this month's installment of Field Notes, Scott Bowe of Kemp Station discusses bees in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

At the end of July, my two boys and I were helping our neighbor shingle his small shed. I was minding my own business removing the old shingles, when bam! I was stung on my ear and hand. What do you do when attacked by bees? You jump off the roof and run. Initially I thought I disturbed a hive under the eve or inside the shed, but after some careful inspection, we noticed the bees came from a hollow in a birch tree next to the shed. Let’s talk about bees in Northwoods.

First, what stung me were not bees, they were hornets. Non-bee enthusiasts like myself tend to clump an entire group of insects into the “bee” category. We do the same thing with needle bearing trees. We often call every needled tree a “pine tree” when it could be a spruce, fir, tamarack, or pine. The same goes for bees. What could be a bee, wasp, or hornet often get grouped under the common name of bee.

Bees, wasps, and hornets are all part of the same order – hymenoptera. That is a large order including other groups of insects such as ants. One major difference between bees, wasps, and hornets is that, in general, bees can only sting you one time whereas a wasp or hornet can sting multiple times. A bee’s stinger is barbed so it stays embedded in your flesh tearing away from the bee, bringing with it an untimely death.

Since getting stung is not the best way to identify bees, wasps, and hornets, their general appearance can also help. Each has a stripped appearance with black and yellow or black and white stripes. Bees have black and yellow stripes and tend to be hairy. These hairs are important for pollen collection. Wasps also have black and yellow stripes but are hairless. Wasps also have a different shape with narrow bodies and a pinched waist. Finally, hornets are black with white stripes, hairless with narrow bodies. It is important to note that there are many species of bees, wasps, and hornets each with different appearances and habits.

Wisconsin has dozens of insects that are classified as bees. Of course, the most common is the honey bee. We have other familiar bees including the sweat bee, bumble bee, squash bee, and mining bee. Interestingly, most bees are solitary except for the honey bee and bumble bee.

Honey bees are not native to North America and were brought over with early settlers. Honey bees are unique with their social behavior, living together year-round as a colony consisting of thousands of individuals. Honey bees forage on a wide variety of plants and their colonies can be useful in agricultural settings for their pollination services. Honey bees are our only bee that produces honey. In winter, honey bees feed on stored honey for energy and keep the hive warm by flapping their wings. In most cases, the honey bees you encounter are not wild, but from a local beekeeper’s hive. In warmer climates, wild honey bee colonies can become established in cavities in hollow trees and similar settings, but have a difficult time with our harsh winters this far north.

The common open-faced hives you have all seen in your eves or under the soffit on your house are wasps. They use wood fiber from trees to build their paper hive. What is interesting about wasps is only the queen survives the winter and rebuild the colony in the spring.

The common round paper hives you have seen in trees or under your eves are hornets. As with wasps, only the queen survives the winter by hibernating in a crevice or sheltered place. Only a small percentage of queens actually survive the winter. Those that do survive have the task of starting a new hive, laying eggs, and feeding the growing larva until those young hornets can hatch and help support the hive.

Bees, wasps, and hornets have a bad reputation because of their sting. Certainly honey bees are critical for pollinating the food we eat. Wasps and hornets are amazing creatures that have some tough hurdles to jump to just to survive.

Photo: Wayne’s bear resistant honey bee hive at Kemp Station.