Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

Yellowjacket vs. Paper Wasp

While I took this picture in mid-August, I have delayed posting it. This is due partly to being busy, but to be honest, I was procrastinating research. I didn’t know if what I was looking at was a yellowjacket or a wasp or a hornet, or even what the difference was. Clearly, something was enjoying a moth as an afternoon snack.

Paper Wasp Eats Moth



What better way to celebrate a new year than by settling the question?

I have identified the apparently hungry insect as a Paper Wasp, more specifically, the Vespidae Polistes dominula. I don’t have the expertise, or perhaps the proper photographs, to further distinguish the wasp’s sex.  (Comments from entomologists are, as always, welcome.)

It turns out, the family Vespidae includes three groups of social wasps. They all establish colonies annually, abandoning them in the fall, with only a few fertilizes queens overwintering; they all make nests of “paper” produced from chewed wood pulp; and they do not leave a stinger. With all this in common, how can we tell them apart?

The genus Vespula is the yellowjacket. The genus Dolichovespula is the hornet. And the genera Polistes and Mischosyttarus are the paper wasps, aka umbrella wasps, found in Colorado.

I was able to eliminate the Dolichovespula, but the coloration of the Vespula and the Polistes is very similar. This publication helped me enormously to make the final distinction.

  • Careful analysis of my photographs (comparing it to the brick upon which it was standing) revealed that the wasp in question is at least 5/8 in. long. That’s longer than the average yellowjacket. It is also quite slender compared to a yellowjacket.
  • The nests built nearby are clearly of a single comb and not enclosed.


Visitors to my house over the summer months would occasionally inform me that they had “discovered” a hornet’s nest — in fact, one of the paper wasp nests. They looked at me like I was crazy when I said, “Oh, yeah, I know it’s there.” Even without knowing what kind of insect I was dealing with, I knew that it was beneficial to my garden, killing other pest insects.  Additionally, since they are most likely to sting to defend their nests, I thought it best to leave them alone.

However, I have read that one should remove nests found on eaves during the winter months, because other undesireable insects may use it. The paper wasps will make new ones come spring.

A final note on the prey: my best guess is that it was a Miller Moth. I imagine it was already deceased when the paper wasp came along.


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Bee problem

As any reader can glean from other posts, a “bee problem” in our house means that we’re concerned about our honey bee colony, discovered living in the Big Tree.

Our bees swarmed in mid-June with little additional fanfare. (See other posts link, above.) They moved on quickly, left some bees behind in the Big Tree, and all returned to normal. Except that maybe it didn’t.

The bees swarmed again. So late in June that the incident, reaching epic proportions, actually stretched into July.

On Day One of the Bee Exodus, we noticed five different groups of bees just feet from the original hive in the Big Tree. I thought it odd that they would swarm again. I was worried that they were swarming not because of overpopulation but because of a disease or perhaps some other problem in the Big Tree.

Five Groups

Five Groups

The following video shows the groups of bees and pans to the hole in the Big Tree where the original colony resides. Hopefully you can get an idea of the short distance they had traveled.

The next video shows three of the groups, and gives an idea of the amount of activity surrounding the swarms.

On Day Two, the bees had made one larger swarm instead of the smaller groups.

One Group

One Group

Here’s a video showing the swarm on Day Two, blowing in a pretty good wind but holding on tight!

On Day Three, July 1, the bees moved to the nearby apple trees and started dropping like flies. (A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly!) I was really concerned. Why hadn’t they found a new place to live yet? Would they all die?

In the apple tree

In the apple tree

Dropping like flies.

Dropping like flies.

Dead bee

Dead bee

On Day Four, the death rate seemed to plummet but the bees were still in the apple tree.  I called the Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association. The nice man I spoke with calmed me down. It is normal for a colony to swarm several times in a season, and in fact it was good news because it meant that the bees were doing well enough to split many times. He said that since the bees fill up on honey, they can usually survive three or four days before they have to find a new place to live. I explained that it had already been four days, and I didn’t know if I could do anything to help them in any way. He gave me the names of some beekeepers who would probably like a free swarm.

I thought, well, at least the bees would have a good home! But I waited one more day.

On Day Five, the bees were gone. That is, except for about dozen who seemed quite attached to the apple tree. I couldn’t quite tell what they were doing there, but Phil and I could see a few bees in the same spot for many days afterwards.

There are still bees in the Big Tree. All’s well that ends well. Whew!

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Today we made a discovery that actually started my skin crawling.

Phil bumped our Purpleleaf Sand Cherry and several bright green critters came flying out. What were they all doing on our bush? It didn’t take long to identify them as lacewings, whose larvae are quite fond of aphids. Here’s a picture of one of our lacewings, with plenty of aphids in the shot as well (all the green spots on the undersides of the leaves, and check out the nice fat one on the stem).

Chrysoperla rufilabris

It’s the aphids that are creeping me out. It didn’t help that I was sticking myself into the bush to try to get pictures. Now I keep imagining that I’ve got aphids all over my body.

Of course, where there are aphids, there are ladybugs. Sure enough, I captured the likeness of this one heading towards a leaf covered with aphids. I believe it to be a Hippodamia convergens (although I’m not 100% certain of this identification. Any help is appreciated.)

  • An adult ladybug can eat up to 100 aphids in a day, or 5,000 in its lifetime.
  • They will play dead when faced with a predator.
  • They produce a bad smell from fluid from leg joints, probably as another way to protect themselves from being eaten.
  • Ladybugs hibernate in the winter.
  • Plants that attract ladybugs include cilantro, yarrow, coreopsis, cosmos, and dandelions.

I can’t resist sharing one more photo. Here’s our same ladybug, on a different leaf. This shows the honeydew that is coating the plant. That’s the sugary waste left by aphids. Yum!

Some tidbits about honeydew:

  • Certain species of honey bees collect it to make honey, which is prized in Europe and Asia for its medicinal value!
  • Ants also collect and even milk honeydew. The ants, in turn, help the aphids by chasing away ladybugs.
  • Adult lacewings feed on honeydew. (Note that it is only their larvae that eat the aphids themselves.)
  • Honeydew can lead to sooty mold. This site offers information on identifying it, and a recipe for cleaning it from plastic or painted surfaces.

So what do I plan to do about my aphid invasion? Nothing. So long as I see the ladybugs and lacewings in the vicinity, I will trust them to take care of it.  

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Broke Black Beetle

I found this critter, or rather what’s left of it, in the lawn but placed it in the wheelbarrow for photographing. Looks like someone enjoyed a snack of the majority of its body. Wings are just over one inch long.

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A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July is not worth a fly.

I have been working in the yard a lot lately. On Sunday, I figure I deserve a little break so off I go to drink a pint. Then, I get a phone call from Phil.

“We have a bee problem,” he informs me. Gasp! A branch laying on the lawn is absolutely covered with bees. It seems that the honey bees from the Big Tree are swarming!  

“Take pictures!” is my first response. Instictively I guess that they won’t be around for long. And sure enough, by the time I make it home, there are just a few bees hanging around the branch.

That’ll teach me to leave the property!!

Luckily, Phil got some good documentation of the incident.

By Phil

My father theorized that the bees were splitting the colony. Research backs him entirely. It seems that this is the method of colony reproduction.

The University of Nebraska answered a lot of my questions:

What makes a honey bee colony swarm?

 Overcrowding and congestion in the nest are factors which predispose colonies to swarm. The presence of an old queen and a mild winter also contribute to the development of the swarming impulse. Swarming can be controlled by a skilled beekeeper; however, not all colonies live in hives and have a human caretaker.

 When do honey bees swarm?

The tendency to swarm is usually greatest when bees increase their population rapidly in late spring and early summer. [May and June]

Iowa State University offers this information:

Honey bee swarms may contain several hundred to several thousand worker bees, a few drones and one queen. Swarming bees fly around briefly and then cluster on a tree limb, shrub or other object. Clusters usually remain stationary for an hour to a few days, depending on weather and the time needed to find a new nest site by scouting bees. When a suitable location for the new colony, such as a hollow tree, is found the cluster breaks up and flies to it.

All sources stated that swarming bees are not dangerous, for a couple of reasons. One is that while they’re swarming, the bees don’t have a home that they feel like defending. Also, while swarming they don’t have any access to food stores, so they eat right before leaving, thus their ability to sting is reduced.

Since our bees moved on in a couple of hours (or less!) I assume the scout bees found a suitable location for the new colony, but I don’t know where that is. And there are still bees in the Big Tree.


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White-lined sphinx moth

I was out by the “Hummingbird Mint” Hyssop again today, and I saw a shocking streak of color. Hummingbird Moth Close Up

I immediately thought it was a hummingbird, of course. But upon closer observation, I saw stripes, then antennae, then an unbelievably long proboscis.

Hummingbird Moth 2 

Thanks to some Internet research, I’m confident that it is a white-lined sphinx moth, also appropriately nick-named the hummingbird moth!

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In early August, we found Charlie hunting a cicada. We rescued it and put it out of her reach, and I was able to get this photo. Of course, it was out of my reach, too, otherwise I could’ve snapped one from above.


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