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Yellow and Black – Will it Attack?

Above: a bumble bee doing its beneficial work atop a coneflower; Photo: Purdue University

After a painful childhood bee sting, we all seem to be pre-programmed to be startled when a bee or wasp flies around our head. Today, we’ll discuss some common yellow and black bees and wasps we encounter, plus a similarly-colored fly that mimics a bee.

Yellowjackets are the notorious wasps that are numerous in parks that have open trash cans. They are attracted to sugary drinks and food, and they can sting (I speak from experience). Yellowjackets are shiny yellow and black wasps about 1/2 to 5/8 inches long. They are about the size of a honey bee, but more slender, shiny, and nearly hairless. These wasps can form underground nests or nests in buildings. They defend their nest and can present a significant stinging threat. Colonies can become quite large by late summer and fall.

Honey bees have wings that lay flat and unfolded atop their abdomen when they are not flying. They are about 1/2 inch long, with golden brown and black stripes on their abdomen. Even though their coloring is not truly yellow, some people may confuse yellowjackets and honey bees. They are also hairy, and we commonly see them performing their crucial work of pollination as they collect pollen and nectar from flowers. Of course, we need honey bees and desire to protect them. While most other colony-forming bees and wasps form new colonies each year and all but the queens die off in late fall, honey bees are considered perennial insects with colonies that survive more than one year. Honey bees can sting, and they can become problematic when they construct a nest in a wall void, especially if it is in your house.

The baldfaced hornet is most readily identified by the shape and location of its nest. These insects build the familiar large grayish, pear-shaped, or football-shaped nests that often are suspended in trees or on the sides of buildings. If you’ve heard the phrase, “mad as a hornet,” it should give you a clue as to why you shouldn’t mess with these nests. They defend their nest, and they sting. Baldfaced hornets are large, black insects, about 7/8 of an inch long with white to cream-colored markings (not quite yellow) on the front of the head and at the end of the abdomen.

Bumble bees are yellow and black with plump bodies, and very hairy. They can be up to about 1 inch long. They build their annual nest in the ground. Bumble bees are also good pollinators, but they defend their nest and they can sting.

Moving up even more in size are the cicada killer wasps. These look like giant yellowjackets, and they can be frightening when they buzz around your head. One might also confuse these insects with hornets. Cicada killers are up to 1-1/2 inches in length with yellow and black markings. Males patrol the area near the single burrows and are most likely the ones buzzing around your head, although the males cannot sting. Females do not defend their burrows and will sting only if mishandled.

With all this talk about stinging insects, let’s conclude today with a harmless yellow and black insect that looks like a bee, but is really a fly called the hover fly. Hover flies (a.k.a. syrphid flies) are prevalent this time of year, and they are particularly numerous around corn and soybean fields. They are small, typically about 1/4 to 3/8 inch long, yellow and black, shiny and hairless. They hover in the air, occasionally alighting on your skin and wiggling their abdomen up and down. It is a fly that looks and acts like a bee but has no sting. Hover flies have a single set of wings, while bees and wasps have two pairs of wings. Although most people don’t linger long enough to critically evaluate whether a bee-like insect has one or two sets of wings, there is an old adage that goes, “Two wings fun, four wings run.” Their larvae are beneficial insects that eat aphids. Hover flies are sometimes confused with sweat bees that have a metallic-coloured head and thorax, with hairs on their body.

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