Getting To Know Those Flying Stingers

Posted by @Sharon on
Uninvited, they join us at picnics. They race for the first bite of our apples. They pounce from beneath the blades of the lawnmower and crawl up the legs of our pants. Even our noses are at risk when we sniff our flowers. "What stung you?" she asked years ago. "I don't know, Ninna, but it had wings and a stinger!"

My first experience with a flying stinger happened when I was about six and bit into an apple without really looking.  I know now that the stinger was a yellowjacket, but when my grandmother came running at the sound of my screams, I could only tell her that it had wings and a stinger and that it had surely done something horrible to my mouth.

"Flying Stingers" she called them, lumping them all into one category.

I remembered that painful event recently when I sat down on one of my garden benches and jumped right back up again, hopping on one leg and trying to hold back the scream that came with the worst sting of my life.  I swear it was that painful, making me think my leg might never walk again.  Flying Stingers; Ninna's words flew right back into my mind.  I know now that this flying stinger was a common wasp, even though I never saw it.

Knowing how they look and knowing their habits, particularly knowing where they nest and where they spend their days, might do more to keep the stings away than would carrying a chemical spray around with us wherever we go.  Let's take a look at the most common Flying Stingers.

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Bumblebee Honeybee

The bumblebee, Bombus terrestris; of all of them, the bumblebee is the least likely to sting.  They are fairly docile little pollinators and go about the serious business of flower grazing undisturbed, if you merely watch them.  They particularly enjoy my wisteria trees in April.  Pollen clings to their hairy black and white or pale yellow bodies and then they groom themselves to collect that pollen into a pouch attached to their back leg where they carry it back to their nests.  Their nests can be anywhere they find fluffy material:  front porch furniture cushions, dried grass, empty tunnels they discover underground; all are fair game.  Usually the nests are small, and even though they are social creatures and live in groups, the nests are not so much connected as clumped together.  While happily grazing your flowers, they aren't thinking about stinging, but if they are defending their nests, they become little black flying Ninjas and their stings pack a painful wallop.  It's best to watch, but leave them undisturbed.

Honeybees, Apis mellifera, are absolutely the most beneficial insects on the planet. The role they play in pollination is vital to all fruit and vegetable crops. The honey they produce is a healthy and delicious food, and is in many ways medicinal.  The wax they create has many uses, so even with their stingers, these little insects are to be protected.  Important as they are, we have a forum devoted to them, and it's filled with useful information pertaining to every aspect of the honeybee.  They nest in huge groups within a hive, usually in the confines of a hollow tree if beekeepers have not provided special boxes for them.  Each hive has a queen bee and thousands of workers surround her.  The honeybee is small, hairy, and light-tannish yellow in color, with tiny black stripes.  It rarely stings when on a journey to find pollen and nectar, unless it's stepped on or handled roughly.  When it does sting, it's terribly painful because its stinger is barbed.  And if the stinger remains in your skin, then that's the end of the bee because the loss of the stinger is a fatal injury.  They're always ready to sting if their nest is threatened. Only experienced beekeepers should handle a honeybee hive.

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Carpenter bee Wasp

Carpenter bees, Xylocopa, are the mildest mannered of all.  Actually the female carpenter bee is the only one who can sting, and she only stings if she feels extremely threatened.  These bees are the ones that drill perfect little circles into wooden sections on your homes.  The holes they drill are much bigger than they are, but they create the tiny tunnels so they can lay their eggs and raise their young there.  They don't eat the wood, but if you see small signs of sawdust on your covered porch, look up and you might see a series of little round holes in the wood above your head.  They only do surface damage.  They are solitary insects, but they often nest near others.  They are also pollinators, looking a little like small bumblebees, but not as hairy, as they graze among your flowers.

Wasps, by far the most painful stingers, come with a variety of common names and appearances.  Those that live in my area have characteristics typical of all wasps; their bodies are long and slender, their legs drop downward when they are in flight, and when they are not in flight, their wings fold inward along each side of their bodies.  The colors of their bodies might differ, and often so will the characteristics of their nests.  The one that brought me to my knees recently had a body of dark reddish brown, and is commonly called a paper wasp.  His tiny nest was attached to the underside of my garden bench.  I disturbed him when I sat down, no doubt.  Others might have yellow stripes, but they all will have long hairless bodies and droopy legs. The most common wasp is Vespula vulgaris.  They love attics, and you can see them hanging around gutters and eaves as well.  Mostly they are social, which means they live together in colonies, but some, like my paper wasp, build smaller nests and tuck them wherever they can attach them.  No matter which variety of wasp it is, it has a powerful sting.  Wasps are not considered strong pollinators because their hairless bodies don't easily pick up the pollen, but they are great at controlling garden pests and they do spread bits of the pollen that clings to them.

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Yellowjacket Hornet

Yellowjackets, Vespula squamosa, are another member of the wasp family and also have a powerful sting. You meet these little guys every time you try to eat outside.  They'll beat you to dessert every time.  I'll tell you right now, they'll race you to the banana pudding and the open soda cans and they'll win every race.  You'll notice first their side-to-side flight pattern while landing, and you might see that they have yellow and black stripes on their hairless bodies. They can nest in trees in teardrop shaped paper nests.  They make the 'paper' the same as all wasps, by chewing tiny slivers of wood and mixing their 'saliva' with it.  When they are nesting inside something, usually the nest is never visible.  They'll go into a small crack and you might hear them, but you'll never see their nests.  They are social insects, so they live in large colonies.  There are types of yellowjackets that live underground, and they build their nests in abandoned burrows.  They are the ones you must watch for when you mow your grass or dig in your gardens.  They are the ones that enjoy attacking your ankles and climbing up your pant legs and they are extremely aggressive.  What good do they do?  Well, they rid your garden of pests, those that devour your favorite vegetables.  Any pollinating they do is purely accidental.

Hornets, I saved the worst for last.  Remember the phrase 'mad as a hornet'?  Hornets are also related to the wasp family, Vespa crabro.  They are by far the strongest of all the stinging insects. They resemble the yellowjacket, but their heads are a bit larger and they appear blacker.  Their nests are always outside and are built in high places.  The nest is football shaped and made from their own 'paper,' typical of the wasp family.  The young are hatched in the nest, and the food is also stored in the nest.  They are very, very aggressive and their stingers are powerful inflictors of breathtaking pain.  But again, just like other wasps, they rid our gardens of pests.


The thing to remember about wasps, including yellowjackets and hornets, is that unlike bees they can sting multiple times.  Once they get started, they simply do not give up.  Bees have barbed stingers, which remain embedded in skin.  Once the bee loses its stinger, that injury kills the bee.  Wasps are a whole different story. 

These stinging insects might vary in color from place to place, but the habits, nests, and the body shape and characteristics remain the same.  Honeybees and bumblebees are quite hairy.  Those of the wasp family have little, if any, hair.

Another point to remember about all of them:  They're all going to graze around your blooms.  Some are looking for pollen and nectar, and some are looking for insects.  You really don't want to disturb them no matter what they're searching for.

As summer winds down, all of the flying stingers are storing food for winter.  Be careful and tread lightly.  You will be much happier if you keep your shoes on!  

Photo credits:  Bumblebee, honeybee, wasp, and hornet photos are courtesy of ATP member JRsbugs.  The carpenter bee:  GNU Free Documentation; Daniel Schwen.  The yellowjacket: Creative Commons; User Fir0002.

Comments and discussion:
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
bees by judithschafer18 Dec 8, 2013 11:16 AM 11
Thank you! by flaflwrgrl Sep 29, 2013 12:34 AM 28

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