Green Scene

Ain’t that a stinger — exploring bees in our neighborhood


first met water lettuce — Pistia stratiotes — floating gracefully on a pond at a public garden. I was enchanted by the cup-shaped individual plants that coasted around on the surface at the whim of the wind of water currents.

Trailing in the water were delicate feathery roots. Shortly thereafter, I was browsing at the Metropolitan Plant Exchange in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and found a tank filled with them. They are delicate and need to be kept moist on the trip home, since even a short period of heat destroys them quickly.

Once at home, I pulled out an old children’s wading pool and just enjoyed watching my new acquisition float around. I rapidly realized that I was not the only one interested in the plant. Honeybees were zooming in, landing on the leaves and taking off again. 

Although I have never been completely certain, I think the bees were simply using the leaves as landing platforms and drinking the water.

Never one to miss an educational opportunity with children, I decided to see if the same bees were returning, or if it was a constantly changing rotation. Honeybees are not aggressive if you treat them carefully, so I approached this project without much trepidation. 

Using a fine paintbrush and a palette of wetted watercolors, I put a small drop of paint on the upper tip of the abdomen. We named the bees blue-spot, red-spot and yellow-spot, and timed them. 

Blue-spot was the most faithful, returning every six minutes from the east. Since bees fly 15 mph, I am guessing that the hive was no more than three-quarters of a mile away. While we much enjoyed the interaction that summer, I must confess that I was unable to continue my study of these bees, since by the following year, the honeybees had practically disappeared from my garden.

Bumblebees have taken their place. Whenever I go out to my garden, those fuzzy yellow and black creatures are continuously buzzing through my flowers. A gardening friend once told me that bumblebees ward off intruders — humans included — by bumping them if they come too close. 

I admit to being a bit dubious of this assertion. However, this summer I have been determinedly ridding my garden of unwanted plants. One day, I found myself in a neglected flowerbed and was working away digging out tenacious roots. I suddenly realized that a bumblebee was consistently buzzing me. I withdrew and then went back a few minutes later. 

Same thing. 

I decided that the bumblebee had first dibs and I would go work elsewhere.

And who can forget the huge bees that used to be a fixture at West 239th Street and Henry Hudson Parkway, flying around and between commuters waiting for the bus. Superficially they resembled bumblebees, but after a while it became clear that the commuters were not disturbed by their presence, so something else had to be going on. 

Indeed, these were carpenter bees. While bumblebees have fuzzy black abdomens, carpenter bees have shiny black ones. Popular lore has it that carpenter bees do not sting. It turns out that this is a misreading of their generally non-combative interaction with humans. 

It is true that the males do not have stingers and are the ones usually encountered outdoors. However, the females do have stingers and will use them if sufficiently provoked. 

Those bees disappeared from West 239th when the old stone house at that corner was replaced by new construction. Some moved on to my house, where I could see them hovering over my roof. 

Copper flashing outside the attractive wood, which they could no longer penetrate, convinced them to finally move on.

Finally, we come to the yellow jackets, which are actually not bees but wasps. As a practical matter, a differentiating characteristic is that bees can only sting once while wasps can sting multiple times and still fly away merrily. Regardless, anyone who has been in a park or playground with sugary trash recognizes these insects. While feeding, they are quite aggressive, and it is rare to see only one.

Fall is coming rapidly, and with it the Sukkot holiday during which members of the Jewish community will eat their meals outdoors in the festively decorated tents called sukkot. At night, the yellow jackets are inactive. But at lunchtime, they can be a real problem. 

You can buy traps to hang outside the sukka (singular of sukkot). However, since they eat also meat, my solution has been to put small plates with a bit of meat around the sukka to keep them busy. 

So far, it has worked well!

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