No insect can clear people from a picnic table on a sunny day like a yellowjacket. Yellowjackets, a type of wasp, are grouped here with other wasps, and bees. All stinging insects nest and forage naturally around us, so understanding actual risks is necessary. Here, we’ll describe only the major types of stinging insects found where people live, work, learn and play. Information about native bees, which are important pollinators, can be found on our Pollinators page. Ants, closely related to bees and wasps, (and some can sting), also have their own page.
Important types of stinging bees and wasps
The Eastern bumblebee is the most commonly seen bumblebee in NY. Size varies from large queens that are one inch long (spring), to ½ inch long workers late in the season. Bumblebees live in social colonies of 50 to 500 individuals. They will be aggressive at the nest entrance, which may be in the soil, tall tufts of grass, leaf or compost piles or along building foundations and stone walls. Bumblebees are docile while foraging but can deliver a fierce sting if stepped on or defending the colony and queen.
Adults are one inch long, with yellow hairs on the thorax and a shiny black abdomen. Males have a yellow patch on the face. These bees create individual nests in wood by using their powerful jaws to carve tunnels and galleries where females lay their eggs. There may be several females tunneling in the same piece of wood. Damage to structural wood is the main problem with carpenter bees, as they are not much of a stinging hazard.
Among the largest of the wasps in NY, cicada killers are gentle giants and very unlikely to sting. Each female digs her own burrow into bare soil patches and soil in stone retaining walls. They capture cicadas up in the trees and drag them down into burrows to feed developing larvae. Cicada killer males are most visible as they guard females and burrows, and chase off competitors, but cannot sting. They tend to fly toward people as intimidation, but not aggression.
Workers are ½ inch long, honey-colored to dark brown. They may forage as individuals or appear as a large mass (a swarm) in the spring-summer. Honey bees are social, live in complex colonies with a queen and can become structural pests if the nest is built inside the wall or attic of a building.
Another robust wasp with coloring similar to cicada killers, these wasps live in large, beige-colored paper nests with colonies of 200-400 workers and a queen. Nests are built inside hollow trees and old barns, usually out of the way of people. Workers may be spotted in the landscape and occasionally will bang on windows at night, attracted to light. They can sting--it will be painful--but they are not aggressive away from the colony.
Related to yellowjackets, paper wasps have more limited colonies of a few dozen females. The nest is a single paper comb without a wrapping but usually built in a protected location, such as under the overhang of a structure. Some have yellow/black colors, others are tones of brown and orange. These wasps have legs that dangle when they fly. Paper wasps often warn intruders who get too close to the nest by flying into them without stinging. When disturbed they can deliver a painful sting.
The sight of a wasp, any wasp, can drive fear into many people's hearts. Solitary wasps, however, are incredibly interesting wasps that are typically ground nesters and seem to specialize in ignoring people.
The most numerous and well-known stinging insect is the yellowjacket. There are a variety of species, mostly colored yellow and black. Baldfaced hornets, despite the name, are large black and white yellowjackets that make nests with tiers of gray paper combs, wrapped inside a papery ball. Some nest in trees, others in structures, still others nest in rodent burrows and compost or leaf piles. Yellowjackets deliver painful stings and when crushed, their bodies release alarm pheromone to attract other workers. Colonies can grow to 5,000 workers or more by the end of the summer.
Bees and wasps are a part of life. Some can cause trouble but most are harmless and beneficial, whether as pollinators or by feeding on caterpillars and other potentially damaging insects.
The species that are most likely to sting can cause life-threatening reactions in people (and sometimes pets) with allergies. When colony-building bees and wasps create nests close to where we live, work, and play we often need to manage them. Yellowjackets and paper wasps that build nests on houses and other buildings may become a stinging hazard to people. Yellowjackets and honey bees will build nests inside buildings when they have access. This can cause a big mess from honey and wax or dead larvae that attract and breed beetles and other pests. Carpenter bees will damage exposed boards of solid wood by excavating tunnels along the wood grain. This damage is often hidden until it is severe.
Each species of stinging bees and wasps is different and requires a different approach. A pest management professional should be hired for large yellowjacket and hornet nest removal, but small nests can be safely knocked down early in the season with a long pole or jet of water. A beekeeper can be called for a swarm or colony of honey bees in an accessible spot. There are a few techniques for carpenter bee prevention.
The first step is to properly identify the bee or wasp species (see What Do Stinging Bees and Wasps Look Like?), then visit the correct page for more information on IPM strategies.
- Bald-faced hornets
- Carpenter Bees
- Cicada killer
- European honeybee
- European hornet
- Paper wasps
- Solitary wasps