What types of bees are New Yorkers likely to encounter?

Bees are divided into two categories based on their nesting behavior: social bees and solitary bees. Social Bees nest in colonies and defend their nest. Solitary bees build individual nests and are generally non-aggressive. Bumble bee is the common name for any bee in a group of large (~ 1"), hairy, mostly black and yellow social bees. Approximately 50 species of bumble bees are known to exist in North America. These bees are hardy due to their heat-conserving furry coats and their ability to generate heat by shivering their flight muscles in cold weather. They are often seen flying at lower temperatures than other insects that lack these adaptations.

Honey bee is the common name for any of several species of social bees known specifically for their honey-hoarding behavior. Honey bees are found in every continent except Antarctica. A healthy honey bee colony may have more than 80,000 worker bees in the summertime. Honey bees are excellent pollinators and produce honey.

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Carpenter bee is the common name for a group of large, metallic-colored bees that lack yellow coloration and are less aggressive than bumble bees or honey bees. Approximately 730 species of carpenter bee are known, though the vast majority are tropical species. They build their nests in flower stalks or woody plant stalks.

Where are bees' nests found?

Social bees frequently nest in naturally-occurring sites, such as old rodent burrows, rotted logs, hollow trees, etc. Occasionally, they also build their nests in houses and buildings. Bumble bees prefer to nest underground in abandoned animal dens. Honey bees also build their nest in enclosed spaces that are generally aboveground. Honey bees also nest in hollow trees and logs, voids in walls, chimneys, and attics.

What do bees feed on?

All immature bees, or larvae, feed on pollen. They mature into new generations of workers (sexually undeveloped females) and drones (males) who maintain the hive and rear the subsequent generations of larvae. Drones also mate with new potential queens. Adult bees are capable of surviving on a diet of pure carbohydrates (e.g., honey or sugar).

What is the life cycle of bees?

Mated female bumble bees over-winter and then select a suitable nesting location each spring. Females constructs the beginning of their nests in a preexisting cavity in the ground, such as a mouse den, where they store pollen for their progeny and incubate the first generation of eggs. The eggs hatch and the new larvae feed on the stored pollen and grow. Eventually, they spin cocoons and metamorphose, emerging as the first generation of workers. These workers extend the nest into a mound of cells in which they tend to the larvae. Toward the end of the summer, males begin to emerge and mate with emerging females, who then over-winter to become next year's queens.

The lifecycle of the honey bee begins in the spring. The queen bee constructs a nest for rearing the first generation of workers and then lays her eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae, which the queen bee tends to adulthood. The first generation tends to the subsequent generations. Worker bees work their entire lives, which last about six weeks.

The honey bee hive can survive year after year, even though there may be a change of queens during the summer when a bee overthrows the existing queen. During winter, honey bee workers cluster around the queen deep in the hive to maintain a high enough temperature to survive. During this time, they feed on their store of honey. As the weather warms, they come out of the hive to resume their normal foraging activities. If the hive is located in a warm building, they may remain active all year round.

What happens during and after a bee sting?

A bee's sting is barbed, like a fish hook. When a bee tries to pull away from the person it stings, it tears the entire end segment of its abdomen from the rest of its body and the bee subsequently dies. Barbs on the sting hold the venom sac in place as it releases venom into the wound.

The human body's response to bee venom is to liberate fluid (containing histamine) from the blood to flush the venom from the area. Swelling and redness accompany this reaction. The sting site remains tender for several days following the sting. If a person has been stung in the past by a certain species of bee and is stung again by that same species, a heightened response occurs, resulting in a larger swelling at the sting site. The portion of the body associated with the sting may also swell (i.e. if stung on the forearm, the entire arm below the elbow including the hand may swell). The sting site may itch as it begins to heal, but people should refrain from scratching the site so as not to force bacteria into the wound causing secondary infection.

What should I do if I get stung by a bee?

You should get away from the bee(s) before you begin treating a bee sting. Bees release an "alarm pheromone" while stinging that alerts other bees to join the attack.

Once safely away from the bees, remove the sting as quickly as possible . The longer a person waits to remove the sting, the more venom that is injected into the wound and the more intense the resulting reaction. Pinch the sting or scrape it off with a fingernail, credit card, or knife.

Once the sting is removed, wash the site with soap and water , and then apply antibiotic ointment and a sterile bandage on top.

Apply ice as needed to reduce pain and swelling. Ice should only be applied for 20 minutes per hour and should be wrapped in a cloth to prevent direct contact with the skin.

You can to take an antihistamine (e.g., diphenhydramine ) for itching and/or ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief.

When should I seek medical attention for a bee sting?

A person should seek medical attention for bee stings if any of the following criteria are met:

  • a person has previously experienced a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting
  • more than 10 stings are sustained at one time, especially in children and the elderly;
  • the sting occurs in the mouth or throat, especially in children;
  • the sting occurs on the eyeball itself; or
  • there is a large localized reaction (e.g., redness greater than 10 inches across) or evidence of infection (increasing pain, swelling, redness, drainage of pus, and fever).

A small percentage of the population is hypersensitive to bee stings, a condition known as "anaphylaxis." These individuals should always carry an adrenaline kit with them and should seek medical attention immediately after being stung, even if the kit is used.

What is anaphylaxis?

Allergic reactions to stings, can develop anywhere on the body and can range from non-life-threatening reactions, such as hives, swelling, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and headaches to life-threatening reactions, such as anaphylactic shock, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, and blockage of the airway.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction to a bee or wasp sting that affects a limited portion of the population (one or two out of every 1,000 people). For these people, getting stung by a bee or a wasp can be life-threatening. While fewer than 100 fatal reactions to sting venom are reported each year in the U.S., it is imperative that if it is suspected that someone is allergic to sting venom, they be evaluated by a medical provider. A medical provider may prescribe either a "sting kit" which includes epinephrine (adrenaline) loaded in a hypodermic syringe for injection, or an Epi-Pen which is an auto-injector loaded with epinephrine.

How can I avoid bee encounters and/or stings?

To help avoid bees and bee stings, take the following precautions:

  • Avoid wearing perfume/cologne or fragrant hair products that smell sweet as it will attract bees;
  • Wear colors such as tan or black and avoid wearing brightly colored or patterned clothing . Bright oranges, yellows, and/or blues attract bees. Floral patters may also attract bees;
  • Do not swat or move rapidly if a bee is investigating you; stay calm and move away slowly.
  • Take care to avoid nesting areas . If you do accidentally disturb a bees' nest, run away from the attacking bees.
  • Clean up all food and drinks and seal all trash cans;
  • Always remain calm around bees. They usually only sting when provoked.

How should I remove a bees nest?

A bee's nest should not be removed unless it is a direct nuisance to humans. In the event that a nest needs to be removed it is always best to call a licensed pest control operator, especially is its in a hard to reach place, or in your home. However, if you decide to remove a nest on your own here are some tips:

  • Exterminate the bees at night when they are less active and when all bees have returned to the colony.
  • Wear protective clothing (e.g., long sleeves, pants, gloves, and a beekeeper's veil).
  • Contact a pest control operator to discuss the best insecticides to use and the best method of application.

More Resources

Illustrations are used courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control

It is the responsibility of residential and commercial property owners to eliminate bees or wasps on their property. File a complaint about nuisance bees or wasps online.