Honey Bees, Bumble Bees,
Carpenter Bees, and Sweat Bees
Professor of Entomology
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Fact Sheets
are also available on our website at:
Professor and Chair, Dept. of Biology, Oral Roberts University
Bees belong to the order of insects called Hy menoptera,
and how to raise them. If interested in more details of keeping
which also includes ants, wasps, and hornets. There are over
honey bees and the production of hives, contact one of the
20,000 known species of bees, but only 5 percent are social
authors for a list of books regarding beekeeping.
bees. Often, social bees occur in large colonies and can be a
Honey bees build a large nest (hive) consisting of several
possible stinging threat. The most common social bees are
wax combs for their brood (young) and pollen and nectar
honey bees and bumble bees. Honey bees are pollinators of
storage. “Wild” honey bee colonies construct nests in cavities
many plants and are important in agricultural crop production.
such as hollow trees or logs, but may also use attics and wall
Honey bees are raised com mer cial ly for honey production and
voids. Some colonies will contain as many as 20,000-60,000
for use in pollination of agricultural crops. Because of their
bees, but most commercial hives are usually smaller. Usually
abundance and close proximity to human habitation, they are
colonies are able to survive the winter, unlike annual colonies
more of a stinging hazard than other bees. Bees are closely
of temperate social wasps. Swarming is more of a population
related to wasps but have many microscopic, feather-like hairs
control mechanism than anything that reproduces offspring.
that give them a hairy or fuzzy appearance. These hairs are
When a honey bee hive becomes overcrowded or threatened
con cen trat ed on the bee’s abdomen and help them collect
by starvation the queen begins laying eggs in queen cells that
pollen. Bees provide their nests with nectar and pollen that is
will develop into new queens. In some cases, drones or male
used as food for the young and adults.
bees are also raised. When new queens are nearly ready to
emerge, the old queen will leave the hive with thousands of
Honey Bees (Apis mellifera
Honey Bees (
worker bees. This large mass of bees is called a swarm and
their purpose is to look for a new place to form a hive. These
The honey bee (Figure 1) is probably the most familiar and
swarms often rest in exposed sites such as trees and shrubs
well studied social insect. This cosmopolitan species is not na-
(Figure 2) before fi nding a suitable cavity for building a new
tive to North America, but was originally imported from Europe.
nest. Although swarms are less defensive than an established
Honey bees are responsible for most human bee stings and
colony, it is best not to disturb them. In Oklahoma, swarms are
approximately half the deaths attributed to bee and wasp stings
most common during late April-June.
in the United States. In addition to honey production, the honey
Honey bees are defensive toward anything approaching
bee provides an estimated $20 billion annually from pollina-
their hive. Alarmed honey bee workers release substances from
tion of 120 cultivated crops. Individual commercial beekeepers
glands in the sting apparatus and mouth parts signaling other
maintain over 100 colonies (hives) of honey bees. Honey bees
bees to attack, and thus, mass stinging incidents can occur.
also attract the interest of many amateur beekeepers who may
Unlike most other stinging Hymenoptera, a honey bee can only
keep only one to ten hives. Several books have been written
sting once since it dies from losing the stinger by imbedding
concerning the life cycle and social behavior of honey bees
it in the victim.
Photo provided by Dr. R. Akre, Washington State University.
Photo provided by Dr. J. Schmidt, USDA/ARS, Tucson, AZ.
Figure 1. Honey Bees at Hive Entrance.
Figure 2. Honey Bee Swarm.
Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources • Oklahoma State Uni ver sity
If a swarm of bees poses a threat and does not move on,
Africanized Honey Bee (Apis mellifera
Africanized Honey Bee (
they can be eliminated using a spray consisting of one cup of
The Africanized honey bee (AHB), the so-cal ed “kil er bee,”
liquid soap in one gal on of water applied with a hand pres sur ized
is another strain of honey bee. It is diffi cult to distinguish between
garden sprayer. Be sure to thoroughly wet the bee swarm. The
the AHB strain and its more common counterpart, the European
soap makes the water penetrate the breathing tubes and the
honey bee. In fact, the AHB is usual y slightly smal er than the
bees cannot breathe. It is best not to try to eliminate a bee
European honey bee. The venom in the sting of Africanized
hive in a house or tree with this spray because of the diffi culty
honey bees is not more potent or powerful than the European
in getting all the bees wet. Call a beekeeper or pest control
honey bee. The major difference between the two strains is that
operator to remove honey bee colonies in a wall or attic.
Africanized honey bees are more ag gres sive when their hive is
disturbed. Therefore, more bees wil attack anyone that disturbs
Varroa Mite - An Important Pest of Honey Bee
them. They wil also chase a person or an animal for a greater
distance. It can be cal ed a “honey bee with a bad attitude.”
The Varroa mite, Varroa destructor = (jacobsoni) was fi rst
Where are Africanized Honey Bees?
discovered in Oklahoma in 1991, and spread in a westerly
direction during 1994 and 1995 (Figure 3). This parasitic mite
Africanized honey bees were fi rst found in southern Texas
damages honey bee colonies by reducing vigor of individual
in 1990. Since then, AHB have established in all the southern
bees. This external parasite sucks body fl uids from its host
and central counties of Texas. However, the AHB has not
while wound sites may provide entry points for disease or-
moved into the eastern and northern Texas counties. Rather,
ganisms. Bees parasitized during the larval stage may live as
the AHB have moved westward through the southern counties
adults for shorter periods, die before emergence, weigh less,
of New Mexico, all the counties of Arizona, and 14 southern
appear deformed, or seldom leave the colony to forage. As the
counties of California. No AHB have been found in Oklahoma.
colony collapses from heavy infestation of this pest, bees that
More information on the AHB can be found at the USDA-ARS
abandon the hive may carry mites to additional nests. Total
colony collapse can occur in as little as two weeks.
What to do in Case You have Swarms of Bees
Beekeepers must try to control Varroa mites if they ex-
pect to maintain colonies. To our knowledge only one product
The best thing to do if a swarm of bees stops in your yard
Apistan® Anti-Varroa Mite Strips containing fl uvalinate is fully
is to simply leave them alone. They are looking for a new place
registered in Oklahoma. Another product, Check Mite + Bee
to start a hive and normally will move on in one or two days.
Hive Pest Control Strips containing coumaphos has a Section
Beekeepers sometimes are interested in col ecting a new swarm
18 regulation approved in Oklahoma through February 1, 2005.
and may be contacted to collect the bees. Normally, it is best
Always follow label instructions when using these products.
to leave honey bees alone as they do not bother people unless
their hive is threatened or someone happens to squeeze an
Figure 3. Life cycle of Varroa destructor = (jacobsoni).
(Courtesy of Roger A. Morse) Prepared by Carol Henderson and illustrated by Byron Alexander.
or aerosols with injectable applicators can be used to direct
chemicals into galleries (e.g., those con tain ing dursban, Sevin,
Carpenter bees get their name from their habit of boring
pyrethrin, or resmethrin). A day or two following treatment, fi ll
into wood to make gal eries for rearing their young. They are often
the entrance holes with caulking compound, plastic wood or a
referred to as “wood bees.” Although several species are found
tight-fi tting wooden dowel glued in place. Remember, unpainted
in the United States, the most common carpenter bee, Xylocopa
wood is preferred by the bees, so consider painting the nesting
virginica (L.), in Oklahoma is black and yel ow and about one inch
areas to help deter future infestations.
long (Figure 4). They resemble bumble bees but the abdomen
(rear body segment) is black and shiny and lacks the extensive
yel ow hairs found on bumble bee ab do mens. Male carpenter
bees have a yel ow face, whereas, the female’s is black.
These large, robust bees resemble carpenter bees; however,
bumble bees have yellow and black hairs on their abdomen
(whereas the carpenter bees have smooth, shiny black rear
body segments) (Figure 5).
Figure 4. Carpenter Bee.
Adult carpenter bees overwinter in abandoned nest tun nels.
In the spring, the survivors emerge, usually in late April or early
Figure 5. Bumble Bee.
May, and feed on nectar. Mating occurs a few weeks later and
newly fertilized females may either reuse old gal ler ies, construct
a new one by lengthening old galleries, or bore entirely new
Bumble bees are social insects that generally nest un der -
ones. The female bores a circular hole (about the size of her
ground (in soil and/or under debris, e.g., refuse dumps, etc.).
body) straight into the wood, across the grain, for a distance
They obtain their food almost exclusively from fl owers. Al though
of about one inch. Then, the gallery takes a right-angle turn,
they make honey, they usually store it in such small quantities as
usually with the grain of the wood and parallel to the outer
to be impractical for commercial purposes. They are, however,
surface. The entrance and tunnel are clean and sharp. They
very benefi cial as pollinators of several plant species, but are
may appear like they were made with a brace and bit. New
not as important to commercial crops as are honey bees. Only
galleries average four to six inches long but those developed
a few crop systems in cooler temperate areas rely on bumble
or used by several bees or past generations may extend up to
bees for effective pollination.
Their underground colonies are small, compared to hon ey
When the nest is complete, females place a mixture of
bee hives and contain only a few hundred bees by late sum-
nectar and pollen at the end of the gallery and lay eggs on the
mer. Their nests are composed of wax posts provisioned with
material. This portion of the gallery is then sealed off with a plug
nectar and pollen for feeding the brood housed in clumps of
of chewed wood pulp. This process is repeated about one cell
cells. They often nest in loose fi brous habitats such as mouse
per day until a linear series of fi ve to eight cells is completed.
nests, insulation, or grass clippings. The colonies are annual,
Larval development can take fi ve to six weeks with new adults
with only fertilized queens overwintering. The queens start new
emerging during summer and fall. These adults store pollen in
nests in the spring or early summer. Eggs laid by the queen
preparation for overwintering but they do not mate until emerg-
usually hatch in three or four days. Larvae grow rapidly and
ing from the gallery the following spring.
about seven days after hatching are ready to spin their cocoon
Female carpenter bees nest in a wide range of woods, but
and change into pupae. It takes about 12 days for them to go
prefer weathered and unpainted wood. In Oklahoma, structural
from larvae to full-grown worker bees. While the fi rst workers
woods or sidings of redwood, cypress, cedar, or white pine are
are still in their cocoons, the queen lays ad di tion al eggs. Young
common nesting sites for carpenter bees.
from the fi rst batch are generally rather small. Each succeeding
Female carpenter bees can sting but rarely do so unless
batch of worker bees over the summer is gradually a little larger.
handled. Males tend to be territorial and often demonstrate ag-
Workers usually live about a month. Males and new queens are
gressive behavior when humans approach, sometimes hovering
generally produced in late sum mer.
a short distance in front of the face or buzzing over head. Males
Bumble bees are not as defensive or as numerous as honey
lack stingers, so the aggressive behavior is for show or bluff.
bees; however, the females are capable of stinging repeatedly.
Control. The best results will be realized if individual gal-
They are similar to other species of social bees and wasps because
leries are treated with an appropriately labeled pesticide. When
they normal y attack and sting only when their nest is disturbed.
possible, treat the galleries after dark when bees are calm. Dust
Although their sting can be painful, they are not normal y danger-
formulations of insecticides can be blown into the galleries (e.g.,
ous except for stings around the head and neck, or to individuals
Sevin, Ficam, or dursban dust). Also, pres sur ized aerosol sprays
that experience al ergic reactions to bee/wasp venom.
Control. Properly labeled products containing pyre thrins,
tions may range from a large local reaction to a very serious,
resmethrins, or “Wasp Freeze” aerosols can be used as a
sometimes fatal, ana phy lac tic shock re sponse. A severe (i.e.,
knock-down measure if necessary. Properly labeled products
systemic) re ac tion can result in hives and itching throughout the
containing carbaryl (Sevin) as spray or dust can be applied just
body, nausea, vomiting, asthma, dizziness, confusion, slurred
at dark or at night to the entrance area of their nest. If possible,
speech, drop in blood pressure, or un con scious ness, and can
immediately after treatment, the ground opening should be
even cause death. These complications in allergic individuals
closed with a shovelful of soil.
can happen very quickly, within 10 to 30 minutes of a sting,
and most deaths occur within one hour. Estimates of deaths
in the United States due to insect stings range from 50 to 100
persons annually, but it is likely that many additional fatalities
Sweat bees are a few species that are placed in the family
are not recorded, since symptoms are similar to those of heart
Halictidae (also called halictid bees). This family contains bees
attacks. Although stinging deaths from insects constitute a
that are relatively small and metallic (often shiny green) (Figure
minor health prob lem, it is estimated that at least 2.5 mil-
lion Americans have some degree of increased sensitivity to
Hymenoptera stings. Unfortunately, medical allergists can not
accurately predict who among this hypersensitive pop u la tion
may have a life-threatening re ac tion upon the next sting.
If you are stung, you should wash the actual sting site with
soap and water to minimize the possibility of secondary infec-
tion and apply ice packs or a baking soda, meat ten der iz er, and
water paste to reduce the amount of venom uptake, pain, and
local swelling. Antihistamines, such as Benadryl®, can be help-
ful to lessen the swelling in mildly allergic re ac tions. If serious
systemic reactions occur, seek a physician’s help immediately.
Immediate injection of epinephrine is the initial step in com-
bating a life-threatening anaphylactic re ac tion. Allergists and
physicians can verify a patient’s hy per sen si tiv i ty by performing
a scratch skin test or intradermal skin test. Most physicians
Photo provided by Dr. R. Akre, Washington State University.
recommend that persons with dem on strat ed hypersensitivity
Figure 6. Halictid “Sweat” Bee.
wear an identifi cation tag and carry a small sting emergency kit
containing antihistamines and a syringe of epinephrine. Such
kits are relatively inexpensive and are available with a doctor’s
Adult sweat bees feed on nectar and pollen and during
prescription (e.g., Ana-kit from Hollister-Stier Laboratories and
the summer may be seen with impressive pollen loads on their
Epi-Pen from Center Lab o ra to ries). People at especially high
hind legs as they return to their nest with food for immatures
risk of a fatal reaction should consult their physician to consider
(larvae). Founding females dig branching burrows in bare soil
de sen si ti za tion pro ce dures that allow for gradually building
(on fl at surfaces to vertical banks). The female provisions cells at
up a tolerance to venom thereby re duc ing the likelihood of a
the end of each branch of tunnels with pollen balls and nectar.
serious systemic reaction.
She lays her eggs in the ends of the provisioned tunnels and
the developing larvae feed on the balls of pollen and nectar.
Sweat bees usually overwinter as larvae or pupae in burrows
in the soil.
Some species of halictid bees, that are called “sweat”
bees, are frequently bothersome to humans because they are
What to Do When Stung
attracted to perspiration. Females can sting, but the sting is
• Wash sting site and apply ice pack to minimize swell-
considered by most people to be mildly painful. Stings com-
monly occur when one tries to brush them off their body.
• Apply baking soda and meat tenderizer in a water paste
to reduce venom spread and swelling.
• Take antihistamine to lessen swelling and mild allergic
Medical Importance and Treatment
The venom of social bees contains active com pounds that
• If serious reactions (i.e., dizziness, asthma, nausea, blood
cause intense pain along with swelling and redness. Conse-
pressure drop, etc.) occur, seek a doctor IM ME DI ATE LY.
quently, stings around the head, eyes, and neck are especially
Only the immediate injection of epinephrine will combat
serious. Of even greater importance, however, is the pos si bil i ty
this life threatening reaction.
of allergic reactions to the venom from just one sting. Such reac-
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