Wasp Wars!

I know all insects are beneficial but honestly I don’t seem able to embrace Wasps.

Last fall, a calamity hit my bee hives although I didn’t know it at the time. The weather was beginning to get cooler and I was in the process of preparing my hives for winter. I’d made a batch of bee cakes. I had insulating sleeves ready to wrap each of the three hives. Activity in the hives was slowing.

I often just hang out at the bee yard and watch my girls coming and going. It’s always entertaining. They were still collecting pollen and I could hear the hum of activity from inside the hive. Drones were being pushed out of the hives as well, a sure sign that winter was coming. And then I happened to notice a wasp drop out of the sky, land at the hive entrance and boldly walk straight into the hive. I waited for the guards to catch it, surround it and drag it outside. But no, nothing happened. No battle occurred and shortly the wasp flew out of the hive as cool as could be. Further observation showed wasps coming and going at regular intervals, one at a time, with only the occasional confrontation from the guard bees.

I was curious and quickly did some google research. I was shocked and dismayed by what I found. It seems that the cunning wasps know they are less likely to be confronted if they just come and go one at a time, especially as the hive nears winter and the honey and pollen preparations become the sole concern. The hive is too busy taking care of their winter preparations to care about a single interloper. The wasps only mission is to eat bee larvae – protein – and perhaps a bit of honey for dessert. But really it’s the protein they are after.

This is devastating for the hive as it depends on new bees emerging over the winter to keep the hive alive. As the older bees reach the end of their life cycle, with no new young bees to take their place, the hive dwindles, is unable to keep warm, and eventually starves and freezes to death! Even if the Queen continues to lay through the winter, there are no nurse bees or workers to keep them going either.

I stood helplessly watching the innocuous and random arrival and departure of wasps from two of my hives, unable to stop them, or even slow the endless stream of predators. Shortly after, as the weather got chillier, I insulated my hives, wrapped and warm for the winter, and over the ensuing weeks I slipped food into the hives on a regular schedule as the weather allowed. But by early in the new year it was obvious that the bees were no longer consuming the bee cakes, that two of the hives were eerily silent. On the chance that some bees did survive I could not do a closer inspection at the risk exposing them to the cold and wet, and so I waited for spring.

One hive continued to thrive, consuming everything I placed on their top board. They were so obviously doing well that it made the two silent hives all the more somber. And then instead of the spring we anticipated, snow hit the west coast with unusually cold temperatures. Day after day the deep freeze held us in its grip. I yearned to wrap my surviving hive in a blanket and bring it into the house! Impossible of course! But I fretted over them almost daily.

Finally the spring limped in and the warmer weather made it possible to take a look inside each hive. I was gutted at the destruction, the layer of dead bees on the bottom of my two silent hives. Both of them were full of honey but there simply had not been enough bees to keep the hives warm or allow them to access the winter stores. The wet and dank interiors of each hive were heartbreaking. I wept silently as I emptied the supers.

As I unwrapped the last and surviving bee hive, there was an equally shocking number of dead bees but the hive was still vibrant and living! The Queen had continued to lay her brood and bees were born throughout the winter to replace the deceased. And now they were eager to embrace the spring and start anew.

I cleaned up my hives and ordered one batch of new bees. Once they were installed I began my daily habit of wandering to the bee yard and watching what was going on.

And then I saw it! My gut clenched. A giant wasp was nosing around both hives!

It was a big fat wasp queen looking to start her new brood of killers for the coming year. My reaction was visceral and I almost fell over the fence around the bee yard trying to get at her before she got into a hive. At this time of year, I understand the queens are looking for free food and perhaps a chance to kill off the hive and start her family in the space!

For days we have been patrolling the bee yard and have exterminated half a dozen of the fat queens. But I plan on a more concerted wasp war and ongoing defense plan this year so that I can give next winter’s bees a fighting chance.

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