Insect has complex social life

Bees are called “social” insects because they tend to hang around in large groups.

People are most familiar with the honey bee, despite the fact it is not native to North America. Honey bees came over with settlers in the 17th century as pollinators.

Most of them are reddish-brown and black with paler orange-yellow rings on the abdomen. Male drones are about five-eighths of an inch, the queen runs about three-fourths of an inch and the female workers from three-eighths to five-eighths of an inch. Drones are a bit more robust and have the largest eyes.

They prefer to nest in hollow trees and beekeeper hives. Honey bees have a complex social behavior that centers on keeping the queen alive for a span of two to three years and sometimes longer. Queens can produce a colony of 60,000 or more worker bees. In early summer, the old queen leaves with a swarm of workers to set up a new colony.

The first new queen to emerge kills the other new queens and leaves for a few days, after returning she again leaves to mate with several drones before returning. The drones die after mating and the un-mated drones are denied food. Honey bees have a barbed stinger and die after stinging you.

Bumble bees are hairy, large, orange and black. They live underground in small colonies. Male drones grow up to five-eighths of an inch long with the queen growing to about seven-eighths of an inch. The queen hibernates, and in early spring, opens a place in the soil to build the nest. Only the young mated queens survive the winter; everybody else dies, including the old queen. Bumble bees fall into 5 percent of pollen bees that are called eusocial, meaning the queen and her daughter workers live together and care for one another.

Paper wasps get to about 1 inch, with a body that is mostly reddish brown to black with yellow rings (sometimes confused with yellow jackets). These build nests from wood pulp and saliva that are often seen under eaves. One female becomes the dominant queen and the first few generations in the summer are all females. Unfertilized eggs will produce fertile males. Only the mated young queens stay put for the winter, the rest die off. They are much more tolerant of people and minor disturbances than hornets and yellow jackets, but you still don’t want to mess around with them.

Bald-face hornets are a large black and white species that builds a pear-shaped nest seen in trees once the leaves are gone. These late summer colonies may contain almost 1,000 workers. The males get to about three-fourths of an inch long. In the late summer the males mature from unfertilized eggs and mate, then they and older queens, workers and the young all die. The young mated females hibernate in the soil.

Yellow jackets are the really nasty ones of this group. There are several species of these in Indiana, and most build their nests underground. They get about five-sixths of an inch long. The head, thorax and abdomen are black and yellow.

In the spring, the mated female will construct a small nest, bring food to larvae until the first brood matures and they become the workers, feeding the young and extending the nest. In the summer, the males develop and mate. When cold weather arrives, all but mated females die, while they hibernate in the soil. Females are short-tempered (no kidding) and at the slightest provocation will repeatedly sting. I’ve been told that the best way to get rid of these is to place a transparent bowl over the hole (so that it can’t be moved). They can’t get out and will not dig a new hole to escape.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to