Do Wasps Make Honey?


Question:
Hi,
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!

The Honey Wasps (Brachygasta): The Wasps That Make Honey

honey wasp Brachygastra mellifica on a flower stemHoney wasp - Brachygastra mellifica - Wikipedia Commons (see Ref 9)

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. 

6 Fascinating facts about the honey wasp

  1. Honey wasps consume floral nectar from the plants they pollinate.

  2. The honey wasp is one of the few insects other than bees, that produce and store honey.

  3. Honey wasps live in large, social colonies, but unlike honey bee colonies, they may have several hundred queens.

  4. Honey wasps are also recognized as important predators of many arthropod species considered to be crop pests.  The species Brachygastra lecheguana are able to detect insect 'pest' larvae inside closed flower buds.  The process involves the honey wasp tapping the buds with her antennae until a larvae is detected.  The wasp will then bite into the flower bud and pull out the pest larvae3.

  5. Like honey bees, honey wasps swarm to create new colonies in different locations.

  6. Honey wasps construct impressive nest structures that feature hexagonal shaped cells, much like honeycomb.

Honey Wasps vs Honey Bees

Close-up of head and face of the Mexican Honey Wasp (Brachygastra mellifica), showing eyes, antennaeClose-up of the Mexican Honey Wasp Brachygastra mellifica - Wikipedia Commons (see Ref 9)


It should remembered that bees are believed to be descended from wasps.  At the very least, 
bees and wasps are related, and 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 in some Brachygasta species2).  

As with honey bees, new colonies of honey wasp are established by swarming2.  As is the case with honey bees, 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 score as for the honey bee, Apis mellifera

See Bees Vs Wasp vs Hornet Stings

Foraging habits of the honey wasp and honey stores

Mexican honey pot wasp on flower headHoney wasp - Brachygastra mellifica - Wikipedia Commons (see Ref 9)

Honey wasps forage primarily on 3 things.

  1. Other arthropods
    Like most other wasps, they hunt other arthropods (such as crop-pest beetle larvae and leaf miners3) which may be eaten by adult wasps, and be fed to their own offspring at the nest.
  2. Sweet plant excretions
    This can include nectar directly from inside the flower, but also from the extrafloral nectaries found on leaves3.  Extrafloral nectar is more concentrated than flower nectar and may contain up to 12 sugar types and a variety of amino acids, proteins and vitamins as well as a few lipids3.  Adult honey wasps feed on and collect sugary plant secretions.
  3. Honeydew
    Honeydew is a sweet substance secreted by true bugs, such as aphids.  Honey bees are also known to collect honeydew, which makes honeydew honey.  Again, honeydew is consumed by the adult wasps in the colony.

Is honey made by the honey wasp, really honey?

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 for honey made by honey bees5 (presumably if they 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.

Do humans eat the honey made by honey wasps?

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.

Honey wasp nests

aerial nest of the honey pot wasp among tree branchesHoney wasp nest - image by Amante Darmanin, Wikipedia Commons (see Ref 9)

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 at little like the wax cells of honeycombs, but are greyish in color, and brittle.

Video of a Mexican honey wasp nest

Watch this great little video of a Mexican honey wasp nest.



Comparison table of the Western honey bee and honey wasps


Western honey bee
(Apis mellifera)
Honey wasp species
(Brachygastra)
Size of females (workers/queens)
(head, thorax, abdomen)
9-11mm
(Falk 2016)
5-9mm
(Naumann 1968)
Colony size60,000 (or more)Upto 15,000
Usual number of
queens in a colony
1Several hundred
Wild nest habitCavities provided by caves or hollow
tree trunks
Self-contained aerial
nests in trees
DietNectar and pollenNectar and arthropods
Establishment of new coloniesVia swarmingVia swarming
Ecological impactPollinationPollination and
'pest' control
Schmidt sting pain index score22


Do hornets make honey?

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?








References

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.

7. https://eol.org/pages/239781/articles

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.












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