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When You Say "Bee," What Exactly Do You Mean?

At Beecatur, we receive many questions about insects that may -- or may not -- be bees. Sometimes these insects are in a tree, sometimes in the ground and sometimes in the wall of a building. To help you better identify the type of insect you're encountering, we've compiled a brief guide below.

Honey bee foraging for nectar and pollen

Bees in Trees

Honey bees are cavity nesters. They prefer to nest inside a protected space with a very small entrance (this tendency is one reason beekeepers are able to raise honey bees in box-style hives). Thus, a feral honey bee colony might take up residence inside a hollow tree and individual bees might be observed coming and going from the entrance site. Honey bees are brown and gold in color, and very fuzzy. They feed on flower nectar and pollen, and their colonies, which can be tens of thousands strong, survive year-round. Thus, here in Decatur, you can observe honey bees foraging for food on mild days in winter. Occasionally, honey bees will build open air comb on a branch, however this is rare in metro Atlanta. Usually, when honey bees are observed in trees, it is a honey bee swarm.

Honey bee swarm on a hedge

March to July is typically swarm season. Swarming is how one honey bee colony splits itself into two. When swarming, the queen bee and approximately half of her workers decide to leave the hive in search of a new home. Generally the swarm will first temporarily land somewhere close to their original home (e.g., on a tree branch, a porch rail, a mailbox, etc.). They form a protective ball of thousands of bees around the queen, while scouts seek out a suitable new permanent home. This "bee ball" is usually when a swarm is observed. Once a new home has been identified, the swarm will move on. Many beekeepers will happily capture bee swarms and put them in hives.

Bald-faced hornet nest looks like a gray paper balloon.

Bald-faced hornet

If, however, you are seeing some sort of structure in the branches of a tree, it is likely the nest of bald-faced hornets. A type of wasp, bald-faced hornets are black and white, and lack hair. They build large (basketball-sized) nests of gray paper, often described as looking like a gray balloon, usually in tree branches, though sometimes on the sides of buildings. A relative of the yellow jacket, hornets are predatory, and feed their young a variety of other insects, making them beneficial additions to your backyard. Like yellow jackets, however, they are aggressive defenders of their nest sites and should be given plenty of lee way. Fortunately, hornets typically nest well off the ground. Keep your distance and they will not bother you. Hornets do not overwinter. Colonies are usually killed by the first hard freeze.

Bees In The Ground

It's important to note that 75% of all the world's bees live in the ground. The vast majority of these bees are solitary bees and harmless. In Decatur, examples of ground-dwelling solitary bees include miner bees (which emerge in early Spring) and colorful sweat bees. These bees are very small and very shy. There's is a single female bee for each hole. There is no colony, per se, though sometimes several holes may be in close proximity, forming an aggregate.

The two types of ground-dwelling, colony-forming bees you might encounter in your backyard are bumblebees, and yellow jackets (which are, in fact, not bees but wasps).

Bumble bee

Black and yellow and covered in fuzzy hair, bumblebees typically live in underground cavities, often unused rodent burrows, though they will also sometimes nest among dense foliage or underbrush. Their colonies can grow to be several hundred strong and live well into the Fall, before dying in winter. They are mostly harmless flower visitors, but can become defensive if their nest site is disturbed.

The Yellow Jacket's bright yellow and black markings signal "DANGER!"

The culprit behind most stings -- and the insect that gives all bees a bad name -- is the yellow jacket. Often confused with honey bees, yellow jackets are typically ground cavity-dwelling, though they are also known to live in dead trees or hollow logs. They are bright yellow and black, hairless, and predatory, feeding their young other insects. Simply wandering too close to a yellow jacket nest’s entrance can provoke a painful response. As we head into Fall, yellow jacket colonies reach their peak size of 1,000 or more. As winter approaches, they stop raising young and their diet shifts from the insect prey to scavenging for sugary liquids -- which often brings them into contact with people. Yellow jacket colonies do not over-winter. As temperatures turn colder, their colonies die.

The Honey Bee and the Yellow Jacket (wasp) look very different.

Bees In/On Buildings

Paper Wasp nests

A variety of paper wasps are very common in Georgia and build small, open, paper comb, often in the corner of a porch or other sheltered overhang. If not disturbed, paper wasps will not bother you.

Most home-owners are already familiar with Carpenter bees. They are wood-boring bees that make round entrance holes, then tunnel to create spaces to raise their young (they don't eat wood, they nest inside it). They are terrific pollinators and rarely sting. However, over time, they can damage wood fascia, railings, etc.

As mentioned above, bald-faced hornets may sometimes build their gray paper nests on the side of building.

Because honey bees are cavity nesters and live year-round, they can sometimes take up residence where they're not wanted -- like inside the wall of a garage or house. In such instances, a professional bee removal service may be needed to extract the bees -- and the comb they've constructed -- from inside the wall. While an exterminator may be able to kill the bees for less, if the comb and stored honey are left behind, with no bees to protect it, it will attract ants, cockroaches, mice, rats and other vermin, exacerbating a bad situation.


Honey Bee Swarms:

Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association Swarm Hotline: 404-519-4141

Bee Removals:

Sometimes, honey bees take up residence inside a structure, in which case a bee removal company may be needed:

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