During our first year here at Alchemy Farm we bought two honeybee hives to place on our farm and I enthusiastically began attending the bee keepers course. I quickly realized that I wasn't comfortable tending bees. I didn't like opening the hive and smoking them into submission, or administering chemicals to kill mites in the hive. Bees have been looking after themselves for millions of years and I felt like I was interfering. I also had no intention of collecting honey from the hives. As if sensing my reluctance the hives swarmed and left the farm. I have since discovered that having honeybee hives on the farm was not in the best interests of the other pollinators, such as the wild bees that call Alchemy Farm home. These wild bees and pollinators are under increasing pressure as they lose habitat not only to humans but also to managed honeybee hives.
I have continued to grow flowers, thousands and thousands of flowers for all different types of bees. As I worked in our gardens tending flowers I met pollinators I didn't know existed. I’d see something resembling a bee and wonder, friend or foe? Have you ever seen what you thought was a bee but it didn’t look quite right? It can be challenging to tell the difference between bees, wasps and yellow jackets especially as their size and colouring are so similar.
Bees have fuzzy, downy coats to help gather pollen, which is attracted by static electricity while they drink nectar. This pollen is carried on their legs and backs. Wasps, on the other hand, have smooth bodies—no hair—and narrow waists. Bees are generally friendly and docile while wasps can be aggressive, especially when food is involved, and they can sting multiple times. Honeybees are the only bee to die after they sting once.
Like bees, wasps are important to the ecosystem. As carnivores with a special liking for aphids, grubs, caterpillars and other bugs, they help rid your garden of insect pests, and they also do some pollinating. Along with flies, wasps are also the clean-up crew of nature.
In the winter, honeybees hunker down in their nests and live on the stores of honey they have gathered during the summer. On a warm sunny day they may emerge from the nest for short periods. Male yellow jacket wasps die over the winter, while the female queens hibernate. Here at Alchemy Farm, wasps love sleeping in amongst the logs in the firewood shelter, which makes for interesting trips for logs in the middle of the night in the snow!
Dirt dauber wasps drink flower nectar, and they also hunt for spiders and other insects in your garden. They stuff these insects inside their nests made of mud and lay eggs in individual cells as a food source for the larvae. Paper wasps build new hives each year, made from dead wood and plant stems. You can usually find these nests under eaves, porches and rooftops. They pollinate your garden while they drink flower nectar. They eat various insects and meat which they carry to the nests to feed their young. They are not aggressive by nature but will sting to defend their nests.
When it comes to their hives, bees live in colonies of about 75,000. Wasp colonies are much smaller, averaging around 10,000. Paper wasp colonies are smaller with hives ranging from 100 to 400 cells and 100 adults.
Bees and wasps are important allies in your garden. Please do not kill or use toxic pesticides or chemicals in response to any pests in your garden. They are all beneficial to the ecosystem. If you use poisons and kill your insect allies, your garden will have no protection when new pests move in.
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