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by John Jackman
Bees, Wasps, Ants, Sawflies and Horntails
Mouthparts: chewing, chewing-lapping
Key Characteristics: Hymenoptera have membranous wings with
few veins and the front pair larger than the hind pair. Some individuals
are wingless. Mouthparts are formed for chewing or for both chewing and
sucking. The body is usually constricted greatly between the abdomen and
thorax. Immature stages are maggot-like or caterpillar-like and are
entirely different from the adults.
Biology: Habits of these insects are varied: some are
predaceous, some are parasitic, some cause plant galls, and some feed on
plant foliage. Others, such as bumble bees and honey bees eat plant pollen
and nectar. This order includes some of our most harmful, as well as some
of our most beneficial insects. The abdomen in the females is usually
furnished with a stinger. These insects have a painful sting and should be
avoided if possible.
Name derivation: Hymenoptera =
Latin for "membrane" (hymeno); "wings" (ptera)
(This is a selected list of
families that are important or commonly encountered.)
Class - Insecta
Order - Hymenoptera
Diprionidae - conifer sawflies
Tenthrendinidae - common sawflies
Siricidae - horntails
Braconidae - braconids
Ichneumonidae - ichneumons
Chalcidoidea - chalcids
Cynipidae - gall wasps and others
Formicidae - ants
Mutillidae - velvet ants
Pomphilidae - spider wasps
Vespidae - paper wasps, yellow jackets, hornets
Sphecidae - sphecid wasps
Megachilidae - leafcutting bees
Anthophoridae - cuckoo bees, digger bees, and carpenter bees
Apidae - honey bees, bumble bees, and euglossine bees
A bit more about families...
Sawflies have multiple segments on the antennae and a thick connection
between the abdomen and the thorax. Otherwise the adults look much like
wasps. The adults are more common in the early spring of the year. The
larvae look much like caterpillars and feed on foliage. Sawfly larvae can
be distinguished from the caterpillars because the prolegs on the abdomen
do not have crochets or small hooks. This family feeds almost exclusively
Common sawflies look very similar to the conifer sawflies as adults and
larvae. The immatures of this family typically feed on broad-leaved trees.
Horntails look like elongate wasps with a thick waist. Females have a
short ovipositor which is used to lay eggs into logs or stumps. They are
most likely to be encountered when the females rest on the logs or are
ovipositing. Larvae are grub-like and develop in the dead wood which is a
bit unusual for biology in this order. This is a small group of medium
Braconidae - braconids
This is a large family of parasitic wasps which are therefore considered
beneficial. They are relatively small, usually under 15 mm, as adults.
They tend to be stout bodied to elongate in shape. They parasite a wide
variety of insects. Cocoons of braconids can be found on the outside of
various caterpillars before they hatch. This group is well known for
polyembryony which is an egg that develops into two or more (sometimes
This family is one of the largest in the whole class Insecta with over
3000 species in North America. They attack a wide range of larvae which
they parasitize. They vary considerably but ichneumon wasps are typically
medium to large sized, elongate, long legged, with long ovipositors which
are often longer than the body. They can be found in almost any habitat
but sometimes are attracted to lights and often can be found search log
piles for wood borer grubs to lay eggs upon.
This is really a superfamily that has a variety of wasps. Most chalcidoids
are parasites of other insects that attack eggs or larvae of the host, but
there are some plant feeders like the gall wasps. Most of them are under
2-3 mm long so they are easily overlooked. They can be collected on
flowers or in yellow pan traps filled with salt water. Some of them are
minute and develop inside the eggs of other insects. There are several
species in this superfamily that have been imported as parasites of our
gall wasps and others
Galls are misshapen plant parts that result from a plant reaction to
feeding by arthropods. Many types of arthropods insects
including wasps, flies, caterpillars, aphids, mites, and other insects
cause the plant to form galls. Galls can be growths on the leaves, leaf
stems, or twigs. Galls can be various shapes: hard or soft, fuzzy or
smooth. The family Cynipidae is one of the most important gall forming
insect groups. Most galls are formed on woody plants. Oak trees and
hackberry trees have a particularly good collection of galls.
Formicidae - ants
Ants are quite diverse in behavior and habitats. They can be general
predators, seed collectors, foliage feeders, or even tend aphids to
collect the honeydew as food. Ants nest in the soil, dead wood, hollow
stems, inside homes, or just about anywhere. The colonies of ants have
multiple generations and they exhibit care of the young. Young ants are
grub-like and can be seen in ant mounds when they are disturbed. This
abundant group is one of the most successful families on earth in terms of
Texas Leafcutting Ant
Velvet ants get their name because they are very hairy and females are
wingless. Nevertheless, they are wasps. Males fly around low over foliage
in search of females to mate with. They typically are black with red,
orange, yellow or white markings. The females have a powerful sting.
Velvet ants have hard bodies and do not crush easily. There are quite a
These wasps are slender and shiny with long legs. They are typically ˝ to
one inch in length, with dark body colors with dark or yellowish wings.
The adults collect spiders as food for the larvae. Nests are in rotten
wood or other cavities and usually have only a few cells for larvae.
paper wasps, yellowjackets, hornets
These common wasps are often found nesting under eaves of homes, in old
buildings, or in the ground. The adults are often seen on flowers where
they collect pollen or nectar as food. Some of these can be quite
aggressive at defending their nests and this family accounts for a good
number of wasp stinging incidents. Most papery wasp nests would be
produced by members of this family.
This family is a large one with diverse habits. They typically are medium
to large in size and often have an elongate connection between the thorax
and abdomen. They may nest in the ground, in natural cavities or make mud
nests of various shapes. Many of them have specific prey that they use to
feed their young.
Leafcutting bees make small nests in hole stems or holes in wood. They cut
nearly perfect circles out of leaves on roses and other plants which are
used as nesting material. It is more likely that you will see the circles
(about ˝ to 3/4 inch in diameter) cut from leaves than finding the nest or
bees. These moderately sized bees carry pollen on the underside of the
cuckoo bees, digger bees, and carpenter bees
This diverse family is sometimes divided into several families. The cuckoo
bees lay eggs in other bee nests and let the host bees take care of their
young. Digger bees typically nest in the soil. Carpenter bees nest in wood
or hole stems. The nests typically contain small numbers of individuals.
honey bees, bumble bees, and euglossine bees
Apidae are colonial nesters. They rear brood and provide parental care for
their young. Honey bees live in hives managed by man or find hollows in
trees or other nesting sites in the wild. Bumble bee colonies are smaller
and often in the ground. Bumble bees store honey in “honey pots” rather
than in comb. Typical bumble bee colonies only have a few hundred
individuals. Bees feed on pollen and nectar.
RECOGNIZING GROUPS OF
* Hymenopterists use a variety of characters to recognize families in this
order. Wing venation, leg shapes, antennae types, general body shapes and
other characters are used. Needless to say it is not easy to recognize
very many families.
* Ants are typically recognized because they are colonial and most members
of the colony are wingless. They can be separated from the termites
because ants have thin waists and elbowed antennae that are otherwise
* Bees tend to be very hairy. However, there are some wasps and velvet
ants that can also be hairy as well. When recognizing bees remember that
the there are many sizes and shapes of native bees in addition to the
honey bees and bumble bees which most people recognize.
* Sometimes wasps can be recognized to least to group by the nest that
they build. Note the nest before consulting a book on that group.
* Many Hymenoptera are so small that you can not recognize them with the
naked eye. Some species are so small that they develop inside the eggs of
other insects. Most of these go unnoticed except by specialists in those