Among Bees and Wasps: Close and Careful

I spend many hours from July into September walking among the wildflowers and among the insects in Eliza Howell Park. My interest in observing insects leads me to try to get very close to them, including to wasps and bees.

20190828_090419

20190828_091048

When I show these kinds of pictures (taken with a phone camera), I often get asked about being so close, about the risk of getting stung. The risk is real, of course, and the questions have led me to reflect upon the fact that I have not (yet!) been stung during any of my many Eliza Howell nature walks.

I have given considerable thought on how to behave among stinging insects. The starting point is the understanding or belief that bees, wasps, hornets do not (normally) resort to stinging unless they are disturbed or threatened or perceive that their nests are threatened. Some threats are accidental, such as stepping on a bee, but our behaviors can greatly reduce the extent to which we are perceived as a threat.

Trying carefully to be non-threatening has led to many opportunities to place the camera within inches of a stinging insect.

20190819_135952

20190818_123309

In trying to practice “non-threatening” behavior, I try to implement two practices: 1) approach insects slowly and deliberately, with no quick movements; 2) when insects focus their attention on me or when they are/appear to be disturbed, stay perfectly (non-threateningly) still.

The first is easier to implement than the second. A slow approach has resulted in dozens of close-up views, especially when the insect is fully engaged in foraging for nectar.

20190828_090502

The second practical principle (stay perfectly still when insects sense you are or might be a threat) is harder to implement. It requires resisting a tendency to run or swat.

Recently I was walking slowly in the flowers when I saw a large bumblebee flying toward me. It came right up to me, buzzing around as it checked me out, landing and crawling briefly on my binoculars and on my arm. I just stood there until it realized that this big old animal was no threat. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waved my arms.

My biggest scare came last year when I was trying to get close-up pictures of a bald-faced hornet nest that was very low on a tree.

20180817_112120

I did what I had not wanted to do. I disturbed the nest by accidentally hitting the branch that held the nest. A swarm of about 10 nest protectors came storming out. My practice of not moving to show that I am not a threat seemed to work. I just stood there while they flew around me for a while. Then they went back to the nest and I breathed a sigh of relief – and attempted no more pictures of the nest that day.

This posting is in the “since you asked” category. My approach seems to have worked so far, but I know that I might get stung tomorrow by some bee or wasp that just wants me to back off. I respect that.

Bees and Wasps: Similar But Different

One of the highlights of a walk among the flowers in Eliza Howell Park these summer days (like the public nature walk scheduled for August 25 at 11:00 a.m.) is the presence of insects, often seen flying around the plants and, at times, sipping nectar from the flowers.

Some are butterflies, but many of the insects attracted to the wildflowers are bees and wasps. These are similar enough that they can easily be confused. There are, however, important behavioral differences.

Perhaps most important, bees eat pollen and wasps eat other insects. Both visit flowers to drink nectar. Bees collect pollen for their young; wasps take insects to their young. These behavioral differences relate to some differences in appearance.

20180804_170355

Bees are usually furry or hairy (pollen sticks to hair and that aids in collecting) and thick-bodied. They have stout legs. Wasps, on the other hand, tend to be hairless, thin-bodied (the thin waist can often be noted clearly), with longer and thinner legs.

20170820_225002

Up-close pictures, like this one of a bee in a Chicory flower, can often reveal how much a bee gets covered with pollen.

20180727_014604

Wasps are cleaner.

20180804_172836

The “bees” that come uninvited to picnics in late summer are usually Yellow Jackets, a type of wasp, not a bee. It is also the wasp Yellow Jacket that builds nests in the ground, sometimes near human homes. The Bald-faced Hornets that build the nests in trees are also wasps, not bees. (See my December 19, 2017, post for more on these nests in the park.)

The next picture is of a bee (note the hairy body and short legs), while the one after that is of a wasp (lack of hair and longer legs).

20180803_171641

20180806_110346

Since there are in North America literally thousands of different species of bees (including dozens of different Bumblebee species) and thousands of different species of wasps, I do not normally attempt to identify the particular species that I see. I do find it helpful, though, to be able to recognize something as a bee or as a wasp. This is a first step in understanding its behavior and its role in the bigger picture of the natural processes occurring in the park.

Note: All of the pictures are from Eliza Howell Park