Woman holding binoculars Join today and get outside at one of our 60+ wildlife sanctuaries.
Woman holding binoculars Join today and get outside at one of our 60+ wildlife sanctuaries.
carpenter bee on yellow flowers
Carpenter Bee © Simi Rabinowitz

Bees & Wasps

Bees and wasps (including hornets and yellow jackets) can inspire fear because some of them sting. However, these fascinating insects are vitally important to nature and to our economy. 

Many are important pollinators of food plants that we rely on. Some wasps are among our most effective controls on crop-eating insects. And, of course, honeybees give us tasty honey and useful beeswax.


Both bees and wasps belong to the order Hymenoptera, which also includes ants and sawflies. There is a great deal of variation among these insects. Broadly speaking, and with some exceptions, bees have round bodies and flattened back legs. They are often fuzzy, which helps them collect and hold pollen when they visit flowers.  Wasps tend to have skinny waists and streamlined bodies and legs, which are perfect for swift hunting.


Some bees and wasps are “social”. This means that they form a colony with multiple individuals who have different roles, from caring for the young to building the nest to reproducing. A colony of social bees or wasps builds an elaborate nest, and will defend it with varying degrees of aggression.

Other bee and wasp species are “solitary”—they may work together to defend a nesting area, but they don’t form colonies. Typically, the female builds the nest and deposits food for her offspring.

Life Cycle

Except for honeybees, social bee and wasp colonies last for only one season. All of the colony members die in the fall, with the exception of the young queens, which find a sheltered place to overwinter. These queens emerge in the spring to choose a nest site, lay eggs and start a new colony.

Adult male and female solitary wasps and bees typically overwinter beneath the ground, and emerge in the spring to begin reproducing.


Adult bees and wasps may eat nectar, pollen, and insects. Depending on the species, they may feed their young pollen, insects and insect larvae, or spiders.

Types of Bees and Wasps

There are many species of bees and wasps in Massachusetts, and they come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Some are social, and others are solitary. Here are some commonly observed species and groups of species.

Social Bees

Two bumblebees on a purple flower
Bumblebees © Pam Meoli

Bumblebees (genus Bombus)

These familiar insects are stocky, fuzzy, and yellow (or orange) and black. The queen bumblebee typically chooses a nest site that is on or under the ground. She lays her eggs, and 10 days later a relatively small number of worker bees is born. These workers gather nectar and pollen, make honey, and care for the nest and young. In the late summer, drones (males) and queens are born, and they mate. Most of the colony dies with the onset of cold weather, but the queens overwinter in leaf litter.

European honeybee on a white and yellow flower
European Honeybee © Andrew Chin

European Honeybees (Apis mellifera)

Imported from Europe for their honey, beeswax, and pollination abilities, these familiar bees are black and gold. Much of our honeybee population lives in beekeepers' hives, and the rest build nests in tree cavities and in the eaves and walls of buildings. Each hive consists of a queen (who lays the eggs), female workers (who gather food and maintain the nest), and male drones (who mate with new queens). If a young queen returns to the nest after a mating flight, the old queen will gather a swarm of hundreds of workers and leave the nest to start a new colony.

Solitary Bees

Carpenter Bee with pollen on legs © Meyer Franklin
Carpenter Bee © Meyer Franklin

Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica and other species)

These insects look like bumblebees, but they have a completely black, shiny, hairless abdomen (the rear section). They mate in April or May. The female carpenter bee starts looking for a suitable nest site, such as weathered areas on buildings, fences, or telephone poles, and people often report seeing them hovering around buildings. She chews into the wood and lays her eggs. Adult carpenter bees emerge in August but return to the nest to overwinter. Carpenter bees seldom pose a threat to humans, as they rarely sting. However, their nest tunnels occasionally cause minor damage to wooden buildings.

Sweat Bee on a flower
Sweat Bee © Aranya Karighattam

Sweat Bees (family Halictidae)

Many, but not all, sweat bees are solitary. Their name comes from their attraction to human perspiration. These small, fuzzy bees come in several colors, but many of them are metallic green. They nest in the ground or in wood.

Mining Bee on Flowers
Mining Bee © Daniel McNamara

Mining Bees (family Andrenidae)

These bees are typically hairy and brown or black. They dig burrows along dirt paths and in other places with sparse vegetation.

Social Wasps

Bald-faced Hornet on a yellow flower
Bald-faced Hornet © Renee Hill

Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichiovespula maculata)

They are black and white (or yellowish white), with a white face and white stripe at the end of the abdomen and can grow over an inch long. Their gray, papery nest is often found hanging from a tree branch or under building overhangs. Larval bald-faced hornets are fed insects, and adults consume nectar and fruit juices as well as some insects. This species can be very aggressive, and will defend its nest with a painful sting.

European Hornet attacking a bee
European Hornet (top) © Michael Ross

European Hornets (Vespa crabro)

True to their name, European Hornets are large (up to 1.5") and brown with yellow markings. These insects were introduced from Europe in the 1800s. They're mostly found in southern Massachusetts. Their nests, built in the hollow of a tree or in a structure like a porch or deck, consist of layers of combs within an outer covering. Adults mostly eat nectar and insects, and they will bite into fruit to drink the juice. The young are fed pre-chewed insects. Members of this species are very defensive of their nests and can deliver an extremely painful sting.

Eastern yellow jacket © Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State Univ., Bugwood.org
Eastern yellow jacket © Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State Univ., Bugwood.org

Yellow Jackets (Vespula species)

You may have seen these insects buzzing around your picnic. They are closely related to hornet but are much smaller and are boldly striped in black and yellow. Also, they waver from side to side before landing. Yellow jackets build their nests underground, in the hollows of trees, or in the walls of buildings when there is an opening or crack in which to enter. They can be a nuisance at the picnic table. Give their nests plenty of space, as they can aggressively defend with a painful sting.

Paper wasp © Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State Univ., Bugwood.org
Paper wasp © Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State Univ., Bugwood.org

Paper Wasps (Polistes fuscatus)

These wasps build small, single-comb paper nests that are open from the bottom and hang from trees and shrubs or from the eaves or ceilings of buildings. The adults feed on nectar, but the larvae are fed insects. Females often come into homes as cold weather sets in. They are also fond of the food at picnic tables, but are more tranquil than yellow jackets.

Solitary Wasps

Black and yellow mud dauber © Johnny N. Dell, Bugwood.org
Black and yellow mud dauber © Johnny N. Dell, Bugwood.org

Mud Daubers (Sphecidae or Crabronidae family)

Three species of these long, slender wasps can be found in Massachusetts. Black and yellow mud daubers (Sceliphron caementarium) and organ-pipe mud daubers (Trypoxylon politum)—which are black-colored—build mud nests for their young, often on sheltered parts of buildings. Blue mud daubers (Chalybion californicum) are parasitic, and they’re often found drinking water from puddles; they use the water to soften the nests of other mud daubers and break in. Then, they remove the eggs, insert their own, and reseal the opening.

Sand wasp © Howard Ensign Evans, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
Sand wasp © Howard Ensign Evans, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

Sand Wasps (Bembix americana, Bembix pruinosa)

These wasps have large eyes and black-and-white-striped abdomens. Although they are considered solitary, dozens of females will gather in a sandy area to excavate individual nests and scare away intruders. The female digs a burrow in the sand, lays a single egg, and brings prey (usually flies) for the developing larva.

Great Golden Digger Wasp copyright Nick Pavey
Great Golden Digger Wasp © Nick Pavey

Great Golden Digger Wasps (Sphex ichneumonea)

These insects’ legs and half of their abdomens are reddish orange, and they can grow to be 1” long. The female digs an underground nest, provisions it with one or more paralyzed grasshoppers, deposits a single egg, then seals the opening and departs. The young overwinter in the nest and emerge the following year.

Cicada killer © Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org
Cicada killer © Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org

Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus)

These insects are very large—they can grow up to 2” long. They have a thick body and are reddish brown or black with dull yellow stripes on the thorax and abdomen. True to their name, they hunt for cicadas, flying high above tree trunks and branches. The female cicada killer digs a burrow in an open area, provisions it with two or three cicadas for her offspring to feed on, and then seals the opening and flies off.

Situations & Solutions

It's important for people to coexist with bees and wasps, which provide invaluable services to ecosystems and sustain our food production systems. Learn what to do in case of a sting, and how to minimize your risk, as well as what to do if you discover a colony in an undesirable spot. 

It’s important for people to coexist with bees and wasps, which provide invaluable services to ecosystems and sustain our food production systems. Learn what to do in case of a sting, and how to minimize your risk, as well as what to do if you discover a colony in an undesirable spot.


While most bees and wasps can sting you without harm to themselves, honeybees can only sting once, after which they perish. Regardless of which species stings, the worst symptom for most people is temporary pain, redness, and swelling around the area. Some people experience a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. People with this condition should always carry an emergency kit prescribed by a physician. Seek immediate medical attention if the following symptoms occur:

  • Swelling or itching beyond the immediate area of the sting
  • Feeling faint or trouble breathing
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure

For those who aren’t allergic, the best treatment is to stay calm, remove the stinger by scraping it off from the side (rather than pulling it out straight, which may release more venom), and apply ice. To ease the pain, you can apply a paste of baking soda and water, meat tenderizer, or an over-the-counter pain reliever for bee stings.

To reduce the risk of being stung:

  • Avoid the use of scented cosmetics such as perfume, hair spray, or lotions when outdoors
  • Always wear footwear when outside
  • Avoid bright-colored or patterned clothing
  • Eliminate or cover attractants such as food, beverages, and trash
  • Carefully check for bee or wasp nests before starting yard work
  • Learn more about the habits and habitats of these insects

Honeybee Swarms

Sometimes a new queen installs herself in a honeybee colony, and the old queen leaves to begin a new colony. She typically brings hundreds of workers with her, forming a swarm. You may see one on a tree trunk or an exterior wall of a building. There’s no reason for alarm—the swarm will move on until it finds a new nesting spot. Stay indoors and watch this fascinating behavior from a window.

Honeybees are protected by law. Be aware that if a swarm enters a building or nests in a location that conflicts with people, pest-control companies will not remove it. However, local beekeepers will usually be happy to collect it. For a list of beekeepers, contact your local pest-control company. 

Nests in Undesirable Places

You may come across a bee or wasp nest in a building or on the ground. Paper wasps usually build their nests high enough on buildings that they’re not problematic; yellow jackets, on the other hand, may enter buildings through openings under shingles or siding to construct their nest in the wall cavity. These nests will be gone by winter. With most species (though not honeybees), only the queen lives through the winter, and she leaves the nest to wait out the cold in a sheltered place.

If you find a ground nest that might pose a threat, the first step is to observe it. Solitary species may be seen excavating tunnels in the ground for several days, but then usually leave the area. Though they can sting, they are usually non-aggressive. On the other hand, social species—especially yellow jackets—will aggressively defend their nest.

 If a nest absolutely must be removed, you should not try to do it yourself. You may be attacked by the colony’s guard bees, you may discover that you have an allergy, or you may find that your store-bought spray can’t reach inside the nest. Contact a professional pest-control company. Be sure to ask:

  • Does the company offer a successful non- or less-toxic method for controlling bees or wasps?
  • If an insecticide is used, what will it be and how is it applied?
  • What measures will be taken to ensure that the insecticide does not enter the living space?
  • What does the warning label say about the toxicity of the product and its effect on humans, animals, and the environment? How long will the substance remain toxic?

Carpenter Bees and Wood Siding

Carpenter bees rarely chew holes in recently painted or stained wood. Your best option is to repaint or stain the structure or replace decaying wood. If that’s not possible, cover the area with a sheet of lightweight plastic or a screen.