Honey Bees, Wasps and BumbleBees
By Philip McCabe, Dip. Sc. (Apiculture)
ICA Headquarters, Termonfeckin, Drogheda

For more information on the Gormanstown Beekeeping Summer School 2006, click here

Bumblebees and Wasps:
Philip points out queen bee The plump furry-looking bees that can be seen flying from flower to flower in your garden is a bumblebee. Along with the wasp they are the most visible of these three species. Both are as semi-social because their colony only exists for part of the year. The queens, which are born late in the season, mate with a number of drones (males, who die after mating) hibernate individually in some warm place for the winter. In March each one sets out to find a place to build a nest. These start off about the size of a golf ball in which the queen lays her first eggs in about six cells. The queens continue to build and forage until the first young workers hatch out after which she ceases to be a forager and confines her activities to laying eggs. The first batch of workers that are born never leave the nest but work on its construction to increase its size.

The bumblebee usually builds its nest in a hole in the ground, under a garden shed or in a hollow out tree stump. It uses moss to line the inside of it nest and will expand over the summer months so that its numbers will grow to about 600.

The wasp will build below the ground but prefers to build above the ground and the nest will be found inside the roof of a garden shed, behind the facia or hanging in an evergreen tree. Its numbers can grow to about 15,000 and will peek about September after which time they start to die off. It is at this time that wasps become aggressive and will sting for no particular reason. The bumblebee and the wasp have similar colour patterns, black with yellow strips and can be seen flying throughout the summer months.

Honeybee The honeybee on the other hand is less likely to be seen. They are black or brown in colour with lighter coloured bands and are regarded as a social insect because they live in colonies throughout the year. Like the Bumblebee and Wasp, the Honeybee colony consists of a Queen, the fertile female, and a large number of workers (infertile females) and drones (males). The average number of honeybees per colony is 1 Queen and 20,000 workers in winter rising to 80,000 workers and up to 1000 drones in mid summer. Their life span of the workers is six weeks in summer and six months in winter, whereas the queen can live for up to 3/4 years. Drones will only be found in a colony during the summer months. The honeybee provides its own building material, wax, which it secrets from glands on the underside of its body. The wax is moulded into hexagonal cells, which are always tilted upwards so that the nectar, which has a high water content when first collected, will not run out when placed in the cells.

The Queen lays one egg per cell and has the capacity to lay up to two thousand eggs per day in the months of April and May. The egg hatches after 3 days and becomes a larvae, it is then fed 'bee milk', (royal jelly). The cell is sealed by the workers on the 9th day after the egg was laid and on the 21st day a new bee will emerge from the cell. The honeybee gathers brings four substances into a colony, nectar, pollen, propolis and water.

Honeybees Honey and pollen (which is the honeybee's protein) are used to make 'royal jelly', which is fed to the young larvae in their cells. Honeybee's change the Nectar gathered into honey by evaporating the water and produce four times more they need thereby proving a crop of honey for the beekeeper. In a good season the beekeeper can expect to get about 60 pounds of honey per colony.

Each of these three insects has a sting, which is their defence against intruders of all kinds. Of the three, the bumblebee, is the least likely to sting and usually only does so if its home is disturbed. The wasp and the honeybee on the other hand will sting to defend their homes but will also attack any moving object in the vicinity if they have been disturbed. Beekeepers use smoke when manipulating a colony of bees and this greatly reduces the risk of annoying or upsetting them and the can be colony can be opened and examined without any great difficulty.

All three species have a sting and they will use them to defend their homes. The bumblebee will rarely sting a human, as they tend to ignore people and if left alone will pose little difficulty to anyone. The sting of the wasp is like a hypodermic needle and can be used many times whereas the sting of the honeybee is 'barbed' and when it enters the skin of a human it cannot be removed. As the honeybee pulls away she leaves behind a little 'ball' of venom with its own muscle mechanism which continues to pump the venom into your skin. It's very important when removing the sting the scrape it off rather than to pull it out as you will only inject the rest of the venom into yourself.

The venom of the honeybee is produced in an 'acid gland' made up of many substances, while the sting of the bumblebee and wasp is mostly alkaline. Most people who get stung have very little reaction and any cream for the treatment of light burns, or a spray like 'waspeze', will help to reduce the effect of the sting. If one gets a more serious reaction to a sting, honeybee or wasp and its important to seek medical help as soon as possible as anti-histamine treatment is required.

Having a Swarm Honeybee Swarms:
The natural evolution of the Honeybee is by swarming, when the Queen and up to 30,000 workers leave the nest and start a new home somewhere else. This could be the roof of a house or a hole in a wall or tree. Before leaving the old home, the workers will have created a number of 'queen cells' out of which a new Queen will emerge and head the original colony.

What to do if you find a nest?
The simple answer is nothing. It is highly recommended that you seek the assistance of a local Beekeeper or professional Pest Control companies as listed in the yellow pages of the telephone directory. Advice is also available from the College of Horticulture, An Grianan, Termonfechin, Drogheda on 041-9822158 or Philip McCabe on e-mail, philipmccabe@eircom.net

Hiving a Swarm of Honeybees
When a swarm of bees emerge from a colony they will usually hang on a tree or bush close-by. To a lay person this looks like panic but it's all very orderly. It's at this point that honeybees are at their calmest and are easy to handle.

The reason for this is they are full of food (they fill up before emerging in a swarm) and they have no home to defend. The beekeeper will then collect the swarm in a box or a straw skep and bring them to the site of their new home, a pre-prepared hive with frames of wax which is raised off the ground.

A piece of flat board is placed in front of the hive pointing downwards and is covered with a white or bright cloth. The swarm is then shook out onto the cloth and for reasons which are unknown to man the honeybees will walk up the cloth into the hive. Those who arrive at the entrance first open a scent gland, which is located just above the sting, and fan out a pheromone which 'calls' the rest to follow in that direction. The beekeeper now has a new colony of honeybees.

Bee Wasp Sting Treatment

  • Move to a safe area to avoid more stings

  • If the stinger is still visible in the wound, scrape off the stinger using a credit card or the edge of a fingernail or knife blade.

  • Wash the area with mild soap and water or swab it with a disinfectant.

  • Apply a cold pack. Wrap an ice bag in a cloth and apply to the stung area. This reduces pain and swelling.

  • Apply Calamine lotion, a lotion containing Benadryl, or a paste made of baking soda and water or over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream.
  • Consider taking an over-the-counter oral antihistamine as directed by the label or a pharmacist.

  • Stay close to a phone for the next 2 hours. Reactions, if any, will usually take place quickly.

    When bees or wasps sting a person, they inject venom rough their stinger into the skin of the victim. Wasps have stingers without barbs that are usually retracted upon stinging, and these insects can sting people multiple times. The honeybee has a barbed stinger that remains in the victim's skin with its venom sack attached. About 3% of people stung by bees and wasps have an allergic reaction to the sting, and up to 0.8% of bee sting victims experience the severe and life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

    Most people will have only a localized reaction to a bee sting. In the normal reaction to a bee sting, the skin is reddened and painful. Swelling and/or itching may also occur, but the pain usually disappears over a few hours. In the so-called large local reaction to an insect sting swelling, redness and pain may persist for up to a week. Areas adjacent to the site of the skin may also be involved in the large local reaction.

    In a systemic allergic reaction, the entire body is affected. The victim may develop hives, redness, or swelling at sites on the body distant from the site of the sting. Symptoms can also include: vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea and dizziness.

    In anaphylactic reactions, victims experience wheezing, difficulty breathing, and a drop in blood pressure that leads to shock. if not treated promptly. Around 50 people are killed each year in the U.S. due to severe anaphylactic reactions to bee stings. These type of reactions usually occur within minutes of the bee sting. Since most people who have allergies to bee stings will have a worsened reaction to every subsequent sting, those individuals with bee sting allergies should talk to their doctor about taking special precautions, including carrying an injectable form of the drug epinephrine (used to treat anaphylactic reactions) at all times.

    If you are stung by a bee:

    Call emergency medical services if you have a history of severe reactions to insect stings or if you experience any severe symptoms as described above.

    Determine if the stinger is still present (look for a small black dot at the sting site) and remove it immediately if is visible in the wound. Many doctors recommend using a hard object like a credit card or blunt knife to swipe over the area and remove the stinger. The honeybee venom sack, which remains in the skin of the victim, can take 2-3 minutes to release all of its venom, so prompt removal of the stinger can reduce the severity of the sting.

    Apply ice or cold packs to the area to reduce the body's inflammatory response.

    Clean the area with soap and water, then apply hydrocortisone cream to the site to decrease the severity of the reaction. Alternative treatments include a paste made of unseasoned meat tenderizer and water (the enzyme in meat tenderizer can break down bee venom) or a paste of baking soda and water.

    Taking an antihistamine such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) in tablet form and/or non-prescription pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can also provide relief of symptoms. Stings in the mouth or nose, even in persons not known to be allergic to bee stings, also require emergency medical attention, since they can lead to swelling that can interfere with breathing and should be brought to the A & E of the local hospital without delay.