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Bees, Hornets, and Wasps

Last Updated: 5/20/16

A large wasp nest under our back porch on 8/30/08.

This page is about dealing with stinging insects in and around our ponds and yards in such a way as to do the least harm possible to them, us, and other animals.

On this page:

On other pages on my site:

I started this page in July of 2007 and did not get to working on it again until 8/28/08! This page is not meant to be a definitive page on stinging insects. I am not an expert on anything. This is just what frivolous information popped out of my head. There may be mistakes; in fact, I am sure that there are; let me know if something is wrong so I can fix it.


From my organic pond page:

Bees, wasps, and hornets often build their nests near a pond. This section of my web site lists a number of non-toxic methods to make them leave including using a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher and a few organic-based insect sprays. Recently, pond keepers have expressed concern over stinging insects coming to the pond to drink. This usually only occurs during drought when puddles and smaller ponds are dried up. While they can appear scary, often stinging insects that are coming to drink in ponds are not very defensive since they are away from their home and happy to drink. You would have to physically contact them, pester them, or run into them to get stung in most cases. I have been in my pond in a swim suit surrounded by lily pads with up to a dozen hornets and wasps drinking and yet have never been stung while in my pond. I just avoid them. In fact, despite honey bee hives on the property and dozens of bee, hornet, and wasp species on our land since we do not use pesticides, I have only been stung twice in the last 15 years. A few years ago, I was stung twice by a European hornet which is not even native to my state of MD, USA. That species is nasty, and their sting is excruciating! My leg was hot and swollen for over a month! When I see one of them, I leave, fast! But, most stinging insects are nothing to worry about unless you are severely allergic.

If you are severely allergic to stinging insects, you should carry an Epi pen with you just in case.

I had been taught the following: Bee stings are acidic (pH less than 7 due to formic acid) so treat them with bases such as sodium bicarbonate (a paste of baking soda) or ammonia hydroxide (sold as bee sting remedy). Wasp and hornet stings are basic (pH above 7) and can be treated with acids such as citric acid from lemons. While it is true that the stings have a certain pH, this web site says that treating with acids or bases has no effect and offers some that may work:

The Differences Between Bees, Hornets, and Wasps

Most people I have spent time with who have encountered stinging insects do not seem to know the differences between bees, hornets, and wasps. Physically, all three groups of species can range from minute (a quarter inch) to large (a few inches). All groups can sting. All groups can either be solitary species or colony species (although bee colonies tend to have female workers while other colonies may be both male and female). The bees and hornets have similar body shapes but bees tend to be fuzzier. Some wasps (the ones I have always considered as wasps) have a different body shape that is very skinny in the middle. Most bees feed on nectar from flowers. Most hornets feed by killing other insects. I found a European hornet stinging a beautiful butterfly to death once. Wasps may feed on nectar, other insects, or be parasites. Some parasitic wasps are very useful as they kill pests like tomato hornworms (a moth larvae). Here is a photo of a tomato hornworm with the eggs of parasitic wasps on its back: hornworm parasites.

For our purposes at trying to avoid being harmed, the differences between the three groups are these. In general, bees are less aggressive than hornets and wasps. Bees can only sting once. The stinger then will not come out. To escape, the bee rips its body away and flies off to die soon. It dies in order to sting. For that reason, a bee will only sting if it feels either its life is in immediate danger, or the hive is in danger (for those species that live in colonies; most bees do). Wasps and hornets can sting over and over again. They do not die from that. The positive side is that they do not deliver as much venom in a single sting than a bee so a single sting from a wasp or hornet tends to be less painful (an exception being the European hornet).

I myself did not really know the correct classification of bees, hornets, and wasps until just now when I was looking in to it. It seems that hornets are simply a certain group of wasps. Most of the insects that I thought were hornets are in fact wasps.

Here in Maryland, we have a lot stinging insects. The bee species include honey bees (not native), bumblebees, carpenter bees, sweat or ground bees, and a bunch of more rare species of all sorts like little green ones. Wasp species include yellow jackets (most likely to improperly be called bees; I thought they were hornets but they are wasps), bald-faced hornets (black and white; not true hornets), mud daubers, paper wasps, gall wasps, parasitic wasps, and lots more. Hornet species include European hornets (not native and the most painful sting I have ever had).

Ways to Avoid Getting Stung

When I am working in my 1800 gallon pond in the summer with honeybees, wasps, and hornets flying in and out for water, I move slowly with my head down. I try not to panic which is a natural instinct. I repeat to myself, "I am just a cow. Bees don't sting cows." That is not altogether true but I have yet to be stung while in my pond in 16 years!

Getting Rid of Bees, Hornets, or Wasps by the Pond

This information used to be on my pond care page but I moved it here on 8/28/08.

A lot of people have asked about what to do about bees, yellow jackets, other hornets, or wasps that make their nests around the edges of your pond. Some live in the ground. Others move into the rock work around some ponds. My pond has some 6 tons of rock around it. Wasps moved in the first few years that my pond was new. Because most wasp, bee, and hornet killers are sprays, they could easily get into the pond and harm the fish and other animals, perhaps killing them. Rain runoff could also drain any pesticides into the pond. Thus, pesticides are to be avoided near a pond. This also goes for those pesky aphids which must be sprayed, hand removed, or a lot of lady bug beetles invited over to eat them. Below are some of the possible ways to get bees, wasps, or hornets to either leave the area or die. In all cases, if you can get a bee suit, it would be advantageous. Only Solutions 4 and 5 pose a high risk of getting stung. To reduce the risk and kill more of the nest occupants, do Solutions 2 to 5 right after the sun goes down when the occupants are all home and tired.

1. Consider allowing them to live in peace if you can avoid the area within one foot of the nest. During the dead of winter, only the queen (and maybe a few others in certain species) will be alive and dormant. It is very easy to then remove and destroy the nest without being stung. In 1998, we had a nest one foot from the electrical outlet and right where I pull up the filter basket from the pump. We worked within one foot of the nest, and the wasps never showed one sign of aggression. In early January, 1999, my brother used a stick to flick the nest out of the bush it was in. No wasps were found around. While these wasps do not seem prone to stinging, yellow jackets and other species are more aggressive so leaving them is probably not an option. Also, if you have children, asking them not to get near something is like an invitation to do just that and get stung.

2. You can spray the nest with the type of fire extinguisher that has compressed carbon dioxide in it. The spray freezes to death anything living that it touches. So, it cannot be used within range of plants (that you want to live). If any of the carbon dioxide hits the water in the pond, it turns to carbon dioxide gas instantly. Aside from a slight decrease in water temperature, it is harmless to pond life. This method lets you spray virtually anywhere except on live animals or plants. After a few minutes, everything is dead in ice, and the carbon dioxide has all gone into the air as gas. This is how we killed a nest of wasps in the waterfall rocks during the Summer of 1997. We tried again on 7/23/00 on a ground hornet nest (they look like small, docile yellow jackets). The cold killed most of the bush which is why I did not want to do it in the first place. Because this nest was underground (unlike the wasps which were under the rock), the extinguisher did not kill the colony. It only killed a few hornets and confused them. I just lived with them. They were not aggressive (thankfully!) so I could work pretty close to them within a foot or so without them showing any signs of attacking. By 2001, they were gone.

3. Repeated spraying of the nest with water from a distance may persuade the stinging critters that this area is just a little too monsoon-like for them, and they may leave.

4. For ground bees and yellow jackets, you can drown their nest to encourage them to leave. You can also plug their nest exits. There are probably two entrances but maybe more.

5. If runoff is not a problem, ground bees and yellow jackets can be drowned with soapy water. Then, cover the holes with twigs and dry dirt.

6. There are a few products out that claim to be poison-free bug killers. One is Victor Poison-Free Wasp & Hornet Killer made from mint extracts. Another is Bugs 'R' Done which is a non-toxic orange-based bug killer. Both are supposed to kill by suffocating the small pores through which insects breathe. I ordered the first kind, and I have used it many times with pretty good success. The natural sprays should be safe around ponds. Both are sold by the company Picket Fence, 1-888-488-3088. I used the Victor Poison-Free Wasp & Hornet Killer on 8/24/02 on a wasp nest under my rabbits' hutch and near a bluebird house with baby bluebirds. It sprayed a soapy mint blend 10 feet with good accuracy. The wasps left, and I was able to knock down the nest the next day. This spray works well for paper wasps. I am not sure how it would work with violent stinging insects like the European hornet (the worst stings I have ever gotten; I was in pain and swollen for months, yes months from two stings from one hornet).

7. This comes from Cam that was posted in rec.ponds on 8/12/04 and reprinted here with permission. It might work for stinging insects next to ponds as well.:

"My back yard is swarmed with yellow jacket wasps every August and September....I found their nest, it was actually a hole in the bricks of my house. I got my wet/dry shop vac and vacuumed up about a gallon of soapy water and then set the crevice tool of the vac beside the entrance of the nest. Over the space of 10 minutes it sucked up every wasp on their way in or out of the nest. As soon as they were flying within 5 inches of the nozzle they would disappear down the black hole. I let the vac sit on the deck for a few more minutes to make sure the wasps had drowned in the soapy water and then emptied the contents out into some fine netting. I had killed almost 2 cups full of yellow jackets in the space of 10 minutes without poison and never got stung...."

Richard added on 8/27/10:
"...I did exactly as Cam said - - with one variation. I used my Wet-Vac and first opened the lid and put some dishwashing liquid in the bottom and used my garden hose to add water about a gallon's worth. Then, the procedure is the same - - I have a long extension on my Wet-Vac and strategically placed it right by the opening (main opening) where the wasps where entering and exiting. It's important to try and seal off other exits that exist - - which, with wasps, there usually are other modes of entry & exit. I spent about two hours - - first running the vacuum for ten minute periods and then turning off to see how many wasps returned. I ended up catching around 50 of the little buggers that got quickly deposited in the soapy water. I must have got the queen or she abandoned the nest, because no wasps are now seen at the pond for over a day. I mean, not one. Lastly - - prior to remembering your article & web site, I called a couple of Exterminators - - even "green friendly" ones. They wouldn't touch my problem - - they still use way too many poisonous chemicals or can't get their 'dust' to the nest. All in all, a wonderful solution that solved the problem."

Stinging Insects Coming for a Drink

Someone asked me this question in 2007:

"I have a problem not entirely addressed in you article on stinging insects, and not actually mentioned anywhere I can find. I have a large rock-wall waterfall, and it seems the bees have taken this as an excellent place to have a drink. There can be up to a few dozen there at a time, and it's only January. I don't want to kill the bees or trap them and they are not living there, just visiting, but if they continue to gather to drink as it warms there could be hundreds at a time in the summer. They are not aggressive, thankfully, but with that number it is only a matter of time before myself or my dog gets a nasty surprise. Have you ever heard of this problem, or more importantly how to non-lethally discourage this?"

My response:

Yes, I've heard of it. I mention it somewhere, perhaps in one of my newsletters. For the most part, you can live with the stinging insects coming to drink. They tend to be docile at that time. You could get stung if one accidently flew into you. That has not happened to me but, when we had honeybee hives, my brother was about 10 feet away when one flew into his head and stung him. You can't really discourage them from drinking because they need to drink. You can lure them elsewhere by setting up a water source for them in an area that you would prefer. To attract them even more, make it sugar water. Add a cup of sugar to 4 cups of water and boil it just like for hummingbird water. Put that in a shallow bird bath or dish where you want them to go. They will prefer that once they find it. Include red, orange, and other colors in that area to further attract them. In order to clean it and add more, you'll have to wait until after dark. You are lucky that they are honeybees which are pretty docile. We have invasive European hornets that come to drink from my pond sometimes. Once when I went to put a hummingbird feeder back up, one of them fell into my boot and stung me twice (they can repeat sting unlike true bees). It was the worst pain from a sting I've ever had. My leg was hot and itchy for, I kid you not, two months! I would put ice packs on my leg at work for a month. Needlesstosay, I give them a very wide berth! Move slowly around the bees, and collisions are rare. Animals haters would suggest spraying pesticides but that would harm any and all animals around that area as well. The same could be said for "bee" traps. Honeybees are, for the most part, good girls so I hope you can learn to cope with them! If they are man-tended bees (as opposed to escapees or the dreaded African honeybees), if you can find the hive, you can ask their caretaker to provide them with some water or sugar water closer to their hive. If they are African honeybees (you didn't say where you live), then that is a bit different. They are pretty much as docile as European honeybees when out feeding and drinking but are more defensive of their hive. If you find an African honeybee hive, you should have a professional remove it. Good luck!


Wasps under a gazebo at Lilypons on 9/2/07.

Bumblebee on hardy canna flowers on 7/11/10.

On 11/2/12, a large hanging paper wasp nest was falling apart on our chicken house. The colony had thrived in the summer, and then some creature annihilated them overnight. The nest only fell apart months later after a hard rain. It might have been a predatory wasp invasion, perhaps European hornets that killed this nest. I took photos of parts of the nest.
Outside paper of the wasp nest
Wasp nest comb
Wasp nest comb - this shows a closer view of one mummified wasp that avoided predation but probably hatched alone with nobody to feed her

I took photos of flowering milkweed on 6/29/14, and there was a bumblebee on it.
Bumblebee on milkweed
Bumblebee on milkweed

When processing a photo of a blooming globe allium, I discovered a hovering native bee in the photo!
Native bee on 5/9/15.

When I was putting up yard doohickeys, I found that paper wasps had made a nest inside this metal frog:
Wasp nest on 10/19/15.

Someone contacted me to let me know that a new patch will be coming out in the USA in 2011 or 2012 that treats bee stings. The web site is Bee Patch.

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