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What's Bugging You?

Keith Hansen,, Extension Horticulture, Smith County

These days, whenever a person gets attacked and stung by several bees or wasps, the immediate suspicion is that they are Africanized honeybees. However, thus far, Africanized honeybees have not been found in Smith County, although they have been found in nearby counties.

Africanized honeybees (so-called Killer Bees) look IDENTICAL to the common European honeybee because they are hybrids between the European strain and an African strain of honeybees. Because of their identical appearance, Africanized honeybees can only be identified by careful laboratory analysis.

All social bees and wasps become very defensive when their colony is disturbed if there is brood (or babies) present. You would too if someone messed with your kids! So, what are the common bees or wasps that are getting folks attention these days? The most frequently encountered at this time of year are cicada killers and yellowjackets.

Fig. 1. Top Row L-R: European Honeybee, Yellowjacket, Cicada Killer; Bottom Row - Cicada

Cicada killers are very large, rusty brown wasps with black and yellow markings on the abdomen. One reason this creature upsets folks (besides its rather large size, about 1 ½ inches long), is they are very industrious, burrowing and digging galleries in lawns, flower beds and gardens. When several adult wasps are involved, they can make quite a mess.

Cicada killers appear every July and August about the time cicadas become abundant. Cicadas (also frequently called locusts) are those noisy, clumsy insects that loudly drone the summer away from high up in the trees. You probably have seen empty cicada skins, still clinging to tree trunks, that are shed after they emerge from the ground. Cicadas are so loud you can hear one 1/4 mile away. Cicadas can also do some minor damage to tree twigs when they lay their eggs.

Unlike hornets, yellowjackets and paper wasps, which are social insects that live in large colonies, cicada killers are considered solitary wasps. However, several individuals are often found within a small area, giving the impression that there is a colony nesting nearby.

The male cicada killer has an annoying habit of buzzing near people, but fortunately it cannot sting. However, the female wasp can pack a powerful sting, but incidents are uncommon unless the wasps are handled or accidentally stepped on or bothered. Her stinger is not used for defending her nest but for paralyzing cicadas for her offspring.

The female wasp is also the one digging the burrows which are ½ inch wide and up to 6 to 10 inches long, with 9 or 10 side chambers where cicadas are brought to feed their young. This means quite a bit of soil is heaped up to form a horseshoe-shaped mound around each burrow. It sort of looks like a miniature gopher has been at work. Nests are usually made in areas with sparse vegetation in bright sun, so thick turfgrass is rarely chosen for a nesting site.

The female cicada killer locates a cicada (no doubt by all the nerve-wracking noise they make) and paralyzes it with a sting. It then holds it under its belly and heads for its burrow. Sometimes you may see her dragging the paralyzed prey along the ground back to the nest.

Once inside the burrow, the female cicada killer lays an egg, which hatches and the larva feeds on the cicada that mamma provided. It is believed there is only one generation of cicada killer wasps per year, with adult females living about a month.

So, these giant wasps are beneficial, helping reduce the population of those screaming insects high up in the trees. Control is usually not warranted because of the beneficial role they play, and ignoring them is the best route to take. As cicadas die off toward the end of summer, the nesting activity of the wasps will also decline.

Yellowjackets. Another wasp that often is mistakenly identified for Africanized honeybees is the yellowjacket. This is because, unlike cicada killers, yellowjackets are very aggressive around their nest and will mount an attack if the colony is disturbed. Worker yellowjackets are about the same size as honeybees, but strikingly marked with black and yellow bands. Honeybees are brown or tan and black.

Yellowjackets construct their nests of a paper-like material consisting of wood fiber. Unlike paper wasp nests, they are completely enclosed in an envelope except for the entrance hole. In Texas, nest size may vary from a few inches to 6 feet or larger, and nests may contain up to 45 levels of combs and 20,000 adult workers. Yellowjackets are primarily ground nesters, but also construct aerial nests. Subterranean nests may be found in gardens, flower beds, pastures, roadside embankments and elsewhere. Aerial nests are typically constructed in trees, under eaves, in wall voids of buildings, in open garages and storage sheds, on porches, in abandoned furniture and in other places that provide protection and are close to food and water.

Because of their scavenging behavior, yellowjackets are a menace around parks, camps and suburban sites where people leave open food and discarded garbage. Yellowjackets forage to feed their larvae meat, especially insects and spiders. They also gather nectar, honeydew and other carbohydrates, but they do not store honey as do bees. The same is true with paper wasps which look similar to yellowjackets.

Unlike honeybees, which can only sting once and then die, yellowjackets can sting repeatedly. If you find yourself attacked by stinging wasps or honeybees, run away from the nest as fast as you can and seek cover. Do not try to first swat them away as that only stirs them up more. Try to cover your head as much as possible to prevent stinging around the face. Seek medical attention if you are stung multiple times or experience unusual symptoms after being stung. A honey bee will leave its stinger in your skin. Get the stinger out by raking your fingernail across it. Don't pinch or pull the stinger out. Put ice on a sting to reduce the swelling.

Options for controlling yellowjackets can be found in Texas AgriLife Extension Serivce publication L-1828 entitled "Wasps and Yellowjackets", available at your county Extension Service office and on the internet at http://agrilifebookstore.org - under the "Insects/Home & Landscape" category. Under the same category, publication L-1791 "Honeybees In and Around the Home" and other publications may also be of interest. Another useful web site describes the Africanized honeybee --http://honeybee.tamu.edu