What’s the Buzz?

by Darrell Smith

At this time of year, Milwaukeeans are enjoying their last tastes of summer, picnicking in the warm weather, and looking ahead to the cooler temperatures and fall coloring ahead. It’s a beautiful time to be outside… until you notice the commotion in your coleslaw or the flurry in that fall flower you’re smelling. A fuzzy black and yellow creature startles you, maybe even sends you running, depending on your disposition towards bees and other creatures that sting. What’s all the buzz about? Why are bees, yellowjackets, and wasps out in force, making us wary in these waning days of summer? Bees and other pollinators are hard at work at this time of year. They can be seen moving from flower to flower, sipping nectar and collecting pollen, storing up food before the temperatures fall. Honeybees turn nectar into honey by storing it in their bodies, regurgitating it, and fanning it with their wings to evaporate the water and produce the rich, syrupy sweet substance. Honey is used to feed their young during the summer and is stored for nourishment over winter. Bumblebees are easily recognizable with their fuzzy, plump, yellow- and black-striped bodies and loud buzz. Bumblebees, like honeybees, live socially in a hive, but the onset of winter has a drastic effect on their colony. Bumblebees die when the temperatures drop, leaving only the fertilized queen bee who survives the winter and lays eggs in the spring to create a new hive. Yellowjackets are a type of wasp, with slender bodies and wings that fold back along their bodies while resting. They are yellow and black-striped, which distinguishes them from hornets, which are largely black with yellow/white markings only on their head and the end of their abdomen. Yellowjackets are a common sight during late August and September, when they seek out the nearest family picnic in search of protein-rich food. The protein is important for their mating in the fall and egg-laying in the spring. Like bumblebees, all yellowjackets die during the winter except for the queen bee who survives to produce new offspring. So are these insects more than just an annoyance to us? Bees and wasps of all types are important pollinators. They help beautiful wildflowers grow and spread across prairies, enable apple blossoms to produce juicy fruit, create golden honey for us to consume, and, important to Wisconsin, they dramatically increase the crop yield of farmers with their buzzing activity. Bees and wasps are also fascinating creatures with highly developed behaviors and adaptations that enable them to survive and thrive in this environment. So the next time you meet an uninvited guest, pause and take a closer, but respectful look, and add to the wonder of our changing seasons. For more information on the Urban Ecology Center, located East of the River in Riverside Park, call (414) 964-8505 or visit Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 9 – September 2003