I see that wasp nests have what looks like honeycomb. Do wasps make honey?
- from Gillian, USA
The short answer is:
Most wasp species do not make honey, however, there are 17 species of wasp known as 'honey wasps' from the genus Brachygasta1, which store nectar and honeydew as a means to help the colony survive during challenging foraging conditions. Such nectar stores are commonly referred to as 'honey'.
Below, you can read about the amazing honey making wasp, and don't miss the short video at the end of the article!
Honey wasps are a group (genus) of social paper wasps found in Central and South America. These are remarkable wasps that in some of their habits and colony structures, are similar to honey bees.
It should be remembered that bees are believed to be descended from wasps, and that bees and wasps are related. It can easily be asserted that bees are, in effect, hairy wasps.
Like honey bees, honey wasps live in colonies. Colonies can be quite large. Brachygastra lecheguana may have colonies of as many as 15,000 wasps1 (honey bee colonies are larger, and may range from 20,000 - 50,000 bees).
The species Brachygastra mellifica was recorded to have an average colony of 7951 adult female workers, 222 males, and an average of 398 queens4. Colonies are perennial (i.e. living for several years).
Interestingly, although most members of a typical colony are female workers, there may be multiple queens (making up as much as 17% of the population of colonies in some Brachygasta species2).
As with honey bees, new honey wasp colonies are established by swarming2. It is believed that honey wasps are not especially aggressive if left alone.
According to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, honey wasps score a 2 on the pain scale, which is mid-way on the scale, and is the same pain score as for the honey bee, Apis mellifera.
Honey wasps hunt for, or forage on 3 things:
Yes, it seems so, and here's why.
1. It's composition is similar to some honey varieties
Honey samples made by Brachygastra mellifica (the Mexican honey wasp) have been taken from natural nests, and analyzed5. From the analysis, it has been shown that the honey contained material from common floral sources (including sunflower and mesquite) as well as honeydew. It was suggested that the composition of honey wasp honey is similar to honey made by honey bees5 (presumably if the honey bees were nesting and foraging in the same region as the Mexican honey wasp).
2. It's longer-term food storage
The key purpose of nectar stores are to provide a source of food back at the nest. What is familiar to most people as 'honey' is a highly concentrated form of nectar that is stored in nests over an extended period of some months. As honey, the content of highly concentrated nectar is not only a reflection of its source (whether floral or from honeydew), it also has excellent anti-bacterial qualities, thus protecting this food store from harmful microbes.
Elsewhere on my site, I argue that nectar stores created by bumble bees, are (owing to their short colony lifecycle) very temporary, and not quite the same as the highly concentrated nectar stores of the honey bee.
In contrast, honey bees have longer lifecycles, and honey stores are intended to supply food to the colony at the nest site during the winter months, and when foraging conditions are unfavorable.
As stated above, honey wasp colonies are perennial. The honey made by honey wasp colonies comprises nectar and honeydew, which are stored back at the nest for an extended period, and serve to feed the colony during times of limited food abundance. It has been suggested that wasps have not found a way to store protein foods (i.e. in the form of other arthropods)6, and that storing nectar and honeydew serves as an alternative solution.
Yes, in South America, the honey is reportedly harvested and eaten by local populations, however, honey wasps may produce toxic honey if they forage on the flowers of Datura7.
Additionally, wasp honey production is unlikely to be commercially viable because the amount produced by typical wasp colony is much smaller than that produced by honey bee colonies8. This is hardly surprising given the difference in colony size.
Like the nests of other paper wasps, honey wasps make impressive nests comprising cells made from tiny slithers of plant matter, formed into hexagonal cells which look a little like the wax cells of honeycombs, but are greyish in color, and brittle.
Watch this great little video of a Mexican honey wasp nest.
|Characteristic||Western honey bee|
|Honey wasp species|
|Size of females (workers/queens)|
(head, thorax, abdomen)
|Colony size||60,000 (or more)||Upto 15,000|
|Usual number of|
queens in a colony
|Wild nest habit||Cavities provided by caves or hollow|
nests in trees
|Diet||Nectar and pollen||Nectar and arthropods|
|Establishment of new colonies||Via swarming||Via swarming|
|Ecological impact||Pollination||Pollination and|
|Schmidt sting pain index score||2||2|
I am not aware of any hornet species that make honey, but they are known to target honey bee nests for their larvae and food stores.
Honey bees have evolved ways to defend themselves against the threat of hornets, especially in some regions of the world. Read more on my page: How do honey bees defend themselves against hornets?
1. Eaton, E. R. Wasps - The Astonishing Diversity Of A Misunderstood Insect. Princeton University Press 2021.
2. Naumann, M.G. 1968. A revision of the genus Brachygastra (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). U. Kansas Sci. Bull. 47: 929-1003.
3. Alves-Silva, E., Barônio, G.J., Torezan-Silingardi, H.M. and Del-Claro, K. (2013), Wasp predation on beetles. Entomological Science, 16: 162-169. https://doi.org/10.1111/ens.12004
4. Hastings, M. “Kin Selection, Relatedness, and Worker Control of Reproduction in a Large-Colony Epiponine Wasp, Brachygastra Mellifica.” Behavioral Ecology 9.6 (1998): 573–581. Web.
5. Sugden, Evan A., and R. Lowrey McAllen. “Observations on Foraging, Population and Nest Biology of the Mexican Honey Wasp, Brachygastra Mellifica (Say) in Texas [Vespidae: Polybiinae].” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, vol. 67, no. 2, 1994, pp. 141–55. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25085503.
6. Judd TM. The role of food storage and communication in the evolution of perennial social Hymenopteran colonies In Stewart FM, editor. Social insects: structure, function and behavior. New York: Nova, Hauppauge; 2011.
8. Brock, R.E., Cini, A. and Sumner, S. (2021), Ecosystem services provided by aculeate wasps. Biol Rev, 96: 1645-1675. https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12719.
9. Images from Wikipedia under creative commons generic license.