Our last post on insects explored the world of flying, biting bugs, or specifically mosquitos and flies. This post delves into the world of flying, stinging insects. What is the difference between biting and stinging insects? An easy place to start is to ask which end of its body is doing the biting (think the area of the head or mouth) versus the stinging (think about the other end of its body or the tail end)? Additional differences will be revealed from there.
Here are some flying insects that sting and have venom: bees (honey, Africanized, carpenter are just a few species of bee) and wasps. The category of wasps includes hornets and yellow jackets. There are stingless bees, but for the time being, we will discuss their stinging cousins.
Which insects sting as opposed to bite?
Can they sting more than once? Why do they sting?
How can I tell a stinging insect from a non-stinging insect?
Do both the male and female insects sting?
Does every member of the colony sting, for example, does the queen bee sting?
Where do these stinging insects come from?
For obvious reasons, observing stinging insects comes with some risk of being stung. As these stings are painful, and in the event of an allergic reaction a serious health risk, caution must be exercised. Hopefully, a parent can help to find examples of these insects to observe with a hand lens or magnifying glass. If you know a beekeeper, she can also provide specimens to observe. Dead specimens are also available on your windowsill. Put a jar outside with something sweet inside. Wait until a bee or wasp finds its way to that tempting morsel in the jar and then quickly pace a lid on. To let the captive go after an observation, consider placing the jar in the refrigerator for a couple of minutes. Take the jar outside. Cooling the animal down will slow its pace, thus allowing one to safely remove the lid and back a safe distance away from the jar.
Learning about stinging insects is helpful in understanding insects in general, but also for learning how to take precautions and not risk a sting. Over 500,000 people worldwide are treated annually in emergency rooms for insect stings. But being familiar with which insects sting, it is hoped that stings can be avoided.
There are different kinds of bees, and some of them are more aggressive or have stings that are more painful. This is also true of wasps. Tarantula wasp stings are rated as extremely, extremely painful. For those of us who reside in Arizona, this is critical information! Most honeybees and bumblebees are not aggressive making them the perfect insects in this group to observe. However, they will become defensive if necessary.
If you can find a bee, wasp, hornet, or yellow jacket carcass that is dead but not squashed take a look at it with a hand lands. Another place to look is on your car grill. How many body parts does it have (three: head, thorax, and abdomen)? Can you see a stinger on the end of the abdomen? Some flies mimic the appearance of wasps and bees as a form of protection from predators. If you have an insect with only two wings (as opposed to four, or a large pair and a smaller pair of wings) these are from the order Diptera (or two wings) and are not bees or wasps.
Bees have bristles on their hind legs for collecting pollen. Can you see these or a little wad of pollen?
How many legs? There should be 3 pairs (6 total) and all are attached to the middle body part. Do you see a pair of antennae? Bee antennae should have an elbow joint or a bend. Bee antennae can touch, smell and taste all at the same time!
You should also see an exoskeleton (this is a trick as the entire insect is an exoskeleton).
Can you see compound eyes?
Hornets tend to be about 1 – 11/2 inches and are bigger than wasps, bees or yellow jackets. They are reddish brown. Yellow-jackets and bees are both yellow and black, but bees have rounder abdomens and visible fuzz or hair that collects pollen.
Wasps are identifiable by their “wasp waists” or a more pronounced connection between the thorax and abdomen. Wasps can be black with metallic green or blue stripes.
If you have different kinds of bees, invite your child to observe features that differentiate them. Are they different sizes? Are there variations in color patterns? Do they have a different number of wings or have other distinguishing features?
If you have captured any of these flying, stinging insects in a bug loupe or container that allows you to safely observe it without being stung, watch how it moves around. Are there patterns to its flight? How does it use its antennae or legs and feet? Add something to the jar like a sweet, sticky substance. What does the animal do?
If you can find and observe an empty nest, such as a wasp paper nest, these are fascinating to touch and explore the various cells where the eggs are laid.
You may have objects in your homemade from beeswax, such as candles (not all candles are made from beeswax, however). If so, share these with your child, allowing her to touch, smell, and taste.
If you buy a jar of honey with the honeycomb included, this is a great opportunity to look, touch, taste, and smell…Yummy. Describe the flavor and texture.
Compare and Contrast
As noted, mosquitos and flies bite. So do spiders, ticks and some ants (some ants can bite and sting).
Some insects, such as certain caterpillars carry venom on other parts of their bodies, such as stinging hairs.
See if you can find pictures of these stinging insects’ stingers. Where is the stinger? Compare these images with what mosquitos or flies bite with, or a proboscis that also serves as a kind of straw for sucking nectar. Look at other insect mouths that may include mandibles nearby. Mandibles allow the insect to cut, crush, or hold plant parts or their prey.
Other differences are also interesting. Honeybees leave their stinger behind in their victims and those are attached to the venom sac. So, honeybees can only sting once and they will die afterward. Bumblebees do not have a barb on their stinger which means they do not get stuck in the victim. Bumblebees and can sting multiple times. Wasps can also sting over and over again!
Not all of the stinging insects we are discussing are from or original to the US. That is, some of the more familiar insects we fear because they sting were not here years ago, but were rather brought in or imported by accident. Africanized bees were bred in Brazil but made their way north to the US. European wasps came to the US from, where else….Europe. Look at an atlas and determine where these insects come from.
Also, consider whether or how these insects are distributed across the globe. Bees are on every continent except Antarctica.
Do you see bees in winter? During the winter months, hive activity slows down and the bees conserve warmth. Contrast this behavior with the burst of activity during the summer months. Why are they not active over the winter months? What is their food source (flowers) and is it available during the winter?
There are many species of bees. See if you can find pictures of different species. This task may overwhelm you quickly, however, as there are 20,000 bee species and 100,00 wasp species! A first place to start is to sort these into categories representing these four different kinds of flying, stinging insects, or bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets.
Some bees live in colonies and are social beings enjoying the company of others. Some bees (carpenter and leafcutter), hornets, and wasps are solitary preferring to live by themselves. Honey and bumble bees are very social. A bee colony consists of three types of bees, or the Queen, infertile female workers, and male drones. The queen’s life consists of laying eggs and she lives for 2 – 3 years. The queens are a special type of female and are the center of the social structure that is the colony. They are provided with a special diet when a larva which means she is bigger and stronger. Male drones live to fertilize eggs, dying after they have carried out this function. The female worker bees do everything else and work so hard that they only live for about 6 weeks. The female worker bees and the Queen are the only ones who can sting!
What do these insects eat? Bees live on nectar and pollen. The nectar is consumed for energy and the pollen for protein and other nutrients. Pollen is also food for the developing larvae. Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets eat other insects or feed on meat (generally other insects), as opposed to just pollen. Yellow jackets eat grubs and flies, and while we are not happy with them when they live near our houses, they and other stinging insects may help to control other pests.
Do these insects have any predators? Yes, despite their capacity to sting birds and other insects, such as dragonflies, can consume them.
Wasps are predatory or parasitic. Some prey on other animals (mostly other insects). These may also drink nectar but are meat eaters. Others may lay their eggs in other animals, or spiders and caterpillars. Those larvae then feed on their host.
These insects may also go after sweet substances they find or that remain on paper, cans, or other containers that we throw in the garbage.
Compare the nests of these animals. Some live above ground in hollow trees, attics, the sides of our houses, or in small spaces in walls or between the roof and the side of a house. Others live in nests in the ground.
If you have a dead specimen and can measure its length or count body parts, this is the first step. Measure and compare different kinds of bees, wasps, hornets, and etc.
Otherwise, consider the following sets of statistics about these critters:
A Queen bee can lay 2000-3000 eggs a day (sounds exhausting!).
A colony of bees can have 50 – 200 individuals living in it.
If you have a nest, compare the shape or size of the cells, measuring distances across and the depth. Count the number of cells in the portion of the nest you have access to.
Honeybees produce one of my favorite foods or honey. The story of honey is amazing with these tiny insects having to collect pollen from millions of flowers in order to produce one small jar.
Bees can detect smell, taste, and touch. If you can capture a bee in a jar, observe its behavior. Next, place the jar with the bee in it in the fridge for a couple of minutes.
Take it out and now observe its behavior. Is there a difference in its behavior when it was room temperature versus cooled down? Add a flower to the jar and predict what will happen. Turn the lights down or off (but you do not want to be in complete darkness because you won’t be able to observe). What happens to the bees behavior when the light changes?
If you have found a piece of wasp’s nest, either “paper” or mud, and know it is NOT occupied, slice it open. Examine the cells. Take a dribble some water onto the nest. How does it hold up? Paper nests are formed from plant fiber, or mostly wood pulp. The fibers are held in place by plant resin or the insect’s saliva.
Look for bees when it is raining. Do you see any? Bees are sensitive to humidity in the air and head back to the hive if they think it is going to rain.
A proboscis is like a straw for sucking nectar from flowers. Next time you have a drink with a straw, take little sips and pretend these are drops of nectar.
Observe and compare which flowers bees seem to visit most often. Now examine the color and smell of those flowers. Are there differences between those that are visited frequently versus not at all? Why might those flowers attract the bees?
Although we dislike bee stings and avoid them if possible, bees are critical to our food chains. Discuss pollination and which fruits bees are responsible for pollinating and making it possible for us to enjoy them (blueberries).
Discuss life cycles. Like many other orders of insects such as butterflies and beetles, bees, hornets, wasps, and yellow-jackets have a life cycle consisting of four states, or egg, larva, pupae, and adult. During the pupae stage, they undergo a complete metamorphosis. This is an important concept in biology.
Find video of bees doing the Waggle Dance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7ijI-g4jHg. This is how they communicate about where to find nectar. Invite your child to make up his own waggle dance. There is also a Round Dance
Make your own beeswax candles. Sheets of beeswax can be found in craft stores.
Visit a beekeeper.
Google “bee house” and find projects to build a bee house in your own yard or garden.