Lions at the Gate

E45 is a forager, a bee who for the rest of her life will seek out pollen and nectar to feed the hive.  Younger bees will stay at home to care for the hive.  When E45 leaves in the morning the guards are already lined up on the landing board, fanning out the hive scent.  Each time she returns it is like a party as guards greet and accept her.  Just beyond them other bees wait to take the pollen and nectar from her.  She will rest only for a moment and then be off again.

When E45 leaves the hive she circles upward, outward, catching the light of the sun and navigating by it.  She knows her location absolutely just from a few golden rays, and within moments she is well on her way to the nearby fields ripe with dandelions.  The colony has an ever present need for pollen to feed the brood and even if there were no brood she could always store it for the spring.

She ventures from flower to flower, carefully scraping tiny lumps of pollen from each flower and packing it onto special “hooks” on her rear legs called pollen baskets.  She will visit dozens of flowers to collect the pollen she needs.   On the way she is coated with the golden powder and transfers it from one dandelion to the next.  In doing so she fulfills her species end of the plant and pollinator bargain.  The plants produce far more pollen than they need.  The pollinators consume much of it but enough is transferred to ensure survival of the flower.

E45 does not know it but she is not alone in the vast flower fields.    Bouncing and buzzing along the ground is a predator, sleek and fast.  Though it appears to be injured or incapable of long flights this is an illusion.  It touches down every few feet because it is hunting, searching for insects crawling on the ground.  As it rises from the ground again it sees a better target – E45.

As E45 skips from one flower an ominous shape buzzes overhead.  She flees immediately.  Away from the hive she has nothing to defend and so she flies for her life.  The predator follows, sleek and shiny, with a long wing span and legs made to catch.  Her kind are hunters and E45 is doomed if she cannot escape.  E45 flies low along the ground, weaving through the weeds and flowers that jut upward from the ground like towers and behind her the hunter comes faster.   It hovers just behind her now as E45 pitches and rolls, partly out of control from her rapid flight, partly in desperate attempt to escape.   The predator lunges, and E45 shoots upward, barely avoiding her, but E45 is at a disadvantage.  She is carrying pollen and nectar.  She is not built for speed.

The hive is near, and its scent draws her onward.  There is safety waiting at the edge of the landing board, the safety of numbers, of hundreds of workers and guards who will help to fend off the attacker.  If she can make it.   She rises up to pass over the tall grass at the edge of the hive and a shadow dives at her.

Struck in mid air she falls to the ground as strong forelegs grasp at her, but E45 is not dead yet.  She curls her tail and twists in mid air, arching to sting, and then both grapplers slam into the ground just in front of the hive.  The hunter stabs over and over with her stinger, a long jagged blade made for killing.  E45 struggles to rise and dash for the landing board but the predator is on her in a heartbeat.  Caught firmly by its legs E45 is stung over and over.  The predator opens its jaws and tears at her, ripping her abdomen off.  E45 dies just a few feet from the hive, and as she lays twitching, the predator takes off, carrying her body away to feed its young.   Wasp, we call the hunter.  To the bees it is a flying death.

The View of the Hive from the House

From my deck, in the afternoon sun I can see honeybee wings glint as the bees come in for a landing at their hive. Late summer is always a busy time, but this day as I looked a storm of gleaming wings hung over my colony. I went down to investigate, walking through the maze of bees, wondering if this was a swarm forming. On the landing board of the hive I saw a wrestling mass of honeybees dragging something, fighting, and stinging. I knew then why the colony had taken to the air - it was under attack.

 Vespula Vulgaris, the common wasp, is the lion of the plains that honeybees roam in their search for nectar. The wasp commonly called a "yellow jacket" is not much larger than the average bee. The primary difference is in how they are wired. Wasps are predators, and behave as such. Today they attacked like a pack.

About once a year I get a link to the "Giant Asian Hornet" forwarded to me, along with the note that 30 of them can kill off an entire colony. That's impressive, and frightening, but not as much as you might think. The Asian hornet is a giant, but the common Bald Faced Hornet (itself actually a yellow jacket) will set up a ferry chain on the landing board of a hive. A few of the wasps wait, killing the defenders as fast as they come. Others ferry the bee bits back to the nest. The bald faced hornet is tiny by comparison, but no less effective.

Though they appear similar, and most people refer to them as bees, a quick inspection shows that the wasp is about as much like the honeybee as the Volkswagen beetle in my driveway is like a Ferrari. The wasp is streamlined with smaller muscles for its wings. The heaviest thing a wasp will carry is a caterpillar or bee abdomen. Their stingers do not come out with the first sting and their venom sack carries enough venom for several discharges. Their carapace lacks hair giving little for a victim to grasp. Their jaw structure is unchanged from when the wasps were larva - these are the jaws of a killer, a meat eater. Bees have a long tongue with which they slurp nectar. Wasp mandibles are capable of delivering a bite to go with the sting, capable of chewing rotten wood and even mortar.

Disposition wise the common wasp or yellow jacket is unpleasant. While a queen-less hive can be unpleasant and even European honeybees can be vicious, wasps carry the hard wired predator aggressiveness.  “Provoking” a wasp can be something as trivial as standing in the wrong spot or wearing the wrong perfume.

Wasps are often considered the psychotic members of the insect kingdom, but really they are a warrior clan. Their colony is driven by a structure as well but in it the survival of the adult is tied to the survival of the brood. Female wasps feed the brood chewed insects. The brood in turn feed the adults a clear sweet liquid. Wasps are driven to hunt by hunger as much as instinct. In the late summer and fall when the queen wasp slows her laying, worker females are driven to forage for sweets. Nectar, Soda, syrup, any sugar will do and they are aggressive because they are literally starving to death. In those times the honeybee colony stands out like a neon lit buffet.

The honeybee is built for different purposes than the wasp. It is built to lift and carry, to care for brood and work its home. It dies if it stings a mammal (but not other insects). It is not prone normally to attack unwarranted. Its design makes it both an able worker and a perfect meal for the wasp. Wasps roam the blooms eating pollen from time to time but their aim is to find a flying meal. A lone bee on a flower will stand little chance against the sting and bite of an wasp, which will ride it to the ground. The wasps will tear the bee abdomens off, toss the still living head and thorax to the side, and fly off with the fat prize. When they can enter the hive, bee larvae will be pulled whole from the cell and chewed alive. Last the honey may be taken but not always. The wasp is a predator and the empty hive doesn't call to it when there are better meals to be had. This day the wasps have come in force. The price of admission to the hive is thirty thousand stingers, but each stinger is attached to a tiny snack. The benefits to the wasps outweigh the risks. The price of failure for the honeybees is the death of the colony.

This does not mean the bees are defenseless. A hive in two deep hive bodies has a population of at least thirty thousand adults. It can mount an impressive defense. Any wasp that goes deep into the hive will be balled, where the workers form a cluster about it and beat their wings. The resulting heat cooks the wasp but leaves the more temperature resistant bee alive. Wasps near the entrance will be attacked en masse, chewed, pulled, and stung. Denied food and under attack, the wasps will be driven back if the entrance to the hive is small enough. The tiny entrance creates a mass of defenders which denies the wasps a numerically fair fight. Soon the air hangs heavy with bees. These bees in the air are hovering, watching for the predators to rise from the hive. The smaller bee, normally prey, will brazenly attack the wasps in mid air, dragging them to the ground where others join in the beat down. The wasps will take what prizes they can and flee for the day, and in the evening the colony calms.

With sunset both wasp and bee retire to their comb. At sunrise the lions will roam once more and at the gates of the hive battle will be joined again. Only the first hard frost will bring a ceasefire to the war, killing the worker wasps on their comb and driving the bees to cluster in their hive.

The wasp queens will hibernate through the cold of winter until they wake in the spring and begin again to rally their forces. The honeybees will wait, raising new generations to survive the winter, ready to defend their home.



The Hive at Home

Colonies are most vulnerable to wasps when they are small, but wasps are not known for lack of aggression.  While they prefer to attack a small colony, hunger can drive wasps to assault even a large colony.  What are you going to do about it?

First off, begin by swinging the odds in the bees favor.  A single bee versus a wasp is hardly a fair fight.  If the wasps aren’t interested in fighting fair, well, give them an unfair fight.  Reduce the size of the hive entrance. If it’s a package, a single bee sized hole is fine.  Established colonies should get two inch wide openings.  Your goal is to produce an entrance packed with bees, but not to force the bees to stand in line or wait.  If they get frustrated the bees will begin crawling around looking for entrances and away from the crowd they are vulnerable.

The wasps know this and you’ll see them crawling the outside of the hive, searching for a lonely and separated meal.  Feel free to treat them to the end of a hive tool but remember it’s the outside of the hive you are smacking.  Upset enough of the bees and they’ll come outside to communicate their displeasure. 

Now that the entrance is smaller, distract the wasps.  Many fine traps can be bought, some with angles and curves and complex openings designed to lure the wasps in.  A simpler and effective trap can be made from a 2 litre soda bottle.  Pour out all but a few inches of soda (this becomes the killing pool) and toss In a hunk of tuna.  Set this out away from the hive – you don’t want to lure predators in only to have them choose your bees over the trap.

The bottle traps work by enticing the wasps to enter.  Once inside they try to fly off, and have difficulty navigating the exit.  Some might make it.  Most won’t, and once they fall into the soda, they will drown.  I won’t cry for them when they do.  Beware placing traps right near the hive – it is easy to attract more wasps than you had to begin with.

The next step is to apply a robber screen to the entrance.  This confuses the wasps.  They can smell the honeybees, and even see them, but with no knowledge of the actual exit to the hive, it will leave them grasping for bees instead of feasting.  You will loose some bees that return to the landing board and are attacked, but better a few bees than the colony.

Finally, no war on wasps can be won without taking it to the nest.  Be very careful.  The wasps can sting over and over, and won’t hesitate to do so if provoked, and killing the nest counts as provoking.  Follow a wasp back to its nest and kill the nest.  It’s the only way to end the war for a while.