The fall buzz: If you get stung, it’s a wasp |

The fall buzz: If you get stung, it’s a wasp

Janice Kurbjun
Summit County correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
yellow jacket

Nature is always full of surprises.

Often, those surprises are completely unexplainable, such as the one I heard recently about a sunrise that, to he who experienced it, seemed like “the good Lord was taking [him] home.”

He described the way the sun ran through a previously white cloud, turning it gold. The light refracted such that the rays shimmered and gleamed off the river’s ripples, creating almost a halo around his rowing shell.

“I can’t describe it,” he’d said.

Neither can I.

But in my case, nature made me hurt – and then laugh.

Last week, I drafted a story about changing aspen colors as I sat on a deck overlooking Dillon Reservoir with a hot cup of coffee and a notebook. Not a half hour after I crossed the last “t” with a flourish, I stepped outside only to have an insect fly up and sting me on the lip.

I’m not sure what it was – was it a wasp, hornet, yellow jacket or bee?

All I know is it sure did take me by surprise – nature’s yin to its peaceful yang.

Did I mention this was my second day at the Summit Daily News?

Anyway, as my lip swelled to where folks joked I’d had a Botox injection that went horribly wrong and my cheek grew to tennis ball size – as if I’d just gone to the dentist – the spectacle encouraged everyone I met to wonder: Where did that insect come from?

What was it doing outside when trees are going dormant, birds are migrating and animals are rustling up their last bits of food before hibernation?

Like I said, I don’t know what it was. I’ve since learned that in Colorado, the “big four” are yellow jackets, European paper wasps, honeybees and bumblebees.

“There are many more, but these are probably the most common,” said Beth Conrey, president of the Northern Colorado Beekeeper Association and 15-year Berthoud beekeeper.

Though I claimed I was stung by a bee, it’s more likely it was the act of a yellow jacket. They tend to have more aggressive behavior than bees, Conrey said, particularly just prior to winter.

According to Conrey, out of the 1,100 species of bee in Colorado, there’s just one species of honeybee. Worldwide, there are a mere five honeybee types – out of 20,000 bee species.

Honeybees are the only species of bee to live in a colony, Conrey said. We’re talking 40,000 to 80,000 individuals living cooperatively, caring for the young and collecting food. Other insects that behave similarly are ants and termites.

“The rest of insects, bar none, are not colony insects,” Conrey said. Which means a honeybee’s method of handling winter is much different than the rest.

Lisa Taylor, Summit County Weed Management manager and individual beekeeper, explained that honeybees live through winter, but don’t actually hibernate.

“They stay in the hive and surround the queen in a little ball,” she said, adding that on warmer days, when temperatures get above about 50 degrees – such as the day in question – they take short flights to get water and “go to the bathroom.”

“You see them out, flying around in the winter,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of weird.”

The rest of the time, worker bees in the cluster shiver to generate a temperature inside the hive of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with the exterior of the cluster sitting at about 46 degrees, Taylor said. They move back and forth from the inner part of the cluster to the outer part to ensure no bee will freeze.

Bees store enough honey for the winter, so they can feed throughout the cold months when the ingredient for honey production, flower nectar, isn’t available. Beekeepers must be careful not to harvest too much honey to ensure the bees have enough to feed on throughout the winter months, Taylor said.

Conrey added that Colorado’s honey bees likely aren’t yet in their cluster. That will happen when temperatures consistently drop to 50 degrees or less, she said. In the meantime, they’re defensive creatures – not likely to sting unless provoked.

The thousands of other species of bees have to “do something else” in winter because they’re solitary creatures, Conrey said.

These are often tube-nesting bees or ground-nesting bees, such as the bumblebee. Sometimes, these bees work cooperatively, but not on the scale of honeybees. It’s more like 50 to 100 individuals working together to “get groceries” instead of thousands. Insects with such behavior are known as “gregarious insects,” Conrey said.

“They have nothing to do with each other except that they like to live next door,” she said.

As far as winter, the solitary insects mostly die off.

“The only ones to survive [winter] are the queens from previous years,” Conrey said. Most bees are gone by this time of year, she added. For example, mason bees have been over-wintering since June, having already died off after putting their larvae into tubes.

Different from the bee, the wasp is more or less the other stinging insect commonly seen in Colorado. As far as appearance, a wasp – particularly the yellow jacket – is bright yellow and black and is smooth. European paper wasps have gray nests, often in eaves. In contrast, the honeybee has a brownish color and is fuzzy – which helps with pollination. A bumblebee is bright yellow and black but is also fuzzy.

Wasps are solitary creatures with an aggressive lifestyle – compared to the honeybee’s defensive nature. They are carnivores, Conrey explained, collecting grubs to feed their young. At this time of year, they’re most aggressive because they’re “like a bear, pulling together a carb load for winter,” Conrey said.

“Most stings happen this time of year and most stings happen from yellow jackets this time of year,” she said.

Taylor has noticed that “wasps are out like crazy right now.”

Which probably explains why I felt my attack from nature came unprovoked.

As solitary creatures, yellow jackets are busy dying, but they’re still gathering groceries. And again, like other solitary insects, the queen is the sole survivor of winter, Conrey said. Though nests are often built in the ground, the wasp is an opportunist and can find suitably dark, cool, damp nesting spots under sidewalks, in eaves or elsewhere. As do other solitary insects, the wasp family also leaves behind other survivors – replacements for next year – in the form of adults, pupae or larvae. Rarely do solitary insects leave eggs behind during winter, Conrey said.

So, as fall turns to winter and our warm temperatures begin to drop, beware of the wasp! And if one stings you, don’t take it personally – it’s just nature.

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