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Mexican Honey Wasp

Brachygastra mellifica (Say, 1837)

Family Vespidae, Subfamily Polistinae, Tribe Epiponini


One of the very few insects other than bees to produce and store honey

Mexican Honey Wasp - Brachygastra mellifica (Say, 1837)

Workers are mild mannered by vespid wasp standards but sting hard when sufficiently provoked. 

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
Mission, Hidalgo County, Texas
October 20, 2006 (Patrick Coin)


 

Mexican Honey Wasp - Brachygastra mellifica (Say, 1837)

(Nest in a Live Oak tree, photo shot looking straight up)

Brooks City-Base, se San Antonio, Bexar Co., Texas
July 10, 2007 (Greg Hammer)

Photo of downed nest - Photo of Bee Co. nest


Texas Brachygastra mellifica Records


Bee, Bexar, Brooks, Cameron, Comal, Dimmit, Duval, Hidalgo, Jim Wells, Karnes, Kenedy
Kleberg, Live Oak, Medina, Nueces, San Patricio, Starr, Travis (sight record), Uvalde, Willacy, Zapata


Range: Roy D. Parker, Professor & Extension Entomologist, (pers. comm., July 2007) writes:

"The Mexican honey wasp is common all over South Texas... I have personally collected them in Kleberg, Nueces, Jim Wells, Duval, San Patricio, and Live Oak counties."

There's also a 100 year old record from Nogales, Arizona (Cameron, 1907). Given the date of the record, it's possible that it was collected south of the border.

Length: 7-9 mm (Hogue, 1993)

Habitat: Occurs in all but the driest habitats (Hogue, 1993)

Life History: Evans & Eberhard (1970):

"Perhaps the most famous of the honey-storing wasps are those of the genus Brachygastra (formerly called Nectarina). In Brazil the honey of Brachygastra lecheguana is gathered from large nests, usually during the Brazilian summer. If the base of the nest is left on the branch, the inhabitants rebuild it in the same place, and the colony can be exploited again the next year. In Mexico the honey of B. lecheguana has commercial value. Wasp farmers-they could properly be called "vespiculturists"-gather young nests and transplant them to places where they can be protected, then periodically oust the inhabitants from the nest with smoke, destroy the nest to obtain the honey, and allow the wasps to return and rebuild the colony. Polybia occidentalis is also used as a source of edible honey in Mexico. Consumers of wasp honey are well-advised to patronize a trustworthy vespiculturist, for the honey of B. lecheguana is occasionally poisonous because of the incorporation of nectar from certain flowers."

Hogue (1993):

The nectar-storing habits of wasps have been perfected by Brachygastra. Their nests contain large stores of a very palatable honey that is widely exploited by humans (Bequaert, 1993). Numerous early accounts discuss the use of honey by the Indians of Mexico and Brazil and leave no doubt about the identity of the insect because of its characteristic nest, which is quite distinct from the nests of stingless bees, the only other common source of native honey in early days. In some areas (e.g. Jalisco), the honey is gathered regularly and even sold on the market. It is strongly scented and said to crystallize more rapidly than bees' honey. Some Indians keep the nests, cutting them when they are small and carrying them to their gardens. The source of the honey is flower nectar gathered by the wasps in bee fashion. When Datura or other toxic blooms are available, the honey may be tainted, and cases of poisoning are not rare.

Nest placement is in the midcanopy of a tree or shrub from 1 to 9 m above ground level. Nests are sparse and difficult to find in native brush but relatively common in suburban settings where they are easily spotted in deciduous trees in winter. (Sugden & McAllen, 1994)

Mature nests are large (40-50 cm long) and ovoid. Frank A. Eischen (pers. comm, July 2007) writes that newly founded nests, in southmost Texas, can reach smallish football size in about 30-40 days. He found occupied nests as long as about three feet and may have been old nests or ones that were unusually successful in finding food. 

When filled with honey, they may weigh several kilograms. There are usually only a few large combs (less than 10 but as many as 20) arranged concentrically within the thin envelope. The entrance is located toward the lower end. (Hogue, 1993)

Nest-founding swarms with several hundred individuals are capable of building 10-15 cm diameter nests in a few days. Colonies contain numerous fertile females, or polygynous queens. Liquid food appears to be transferred routinely from foragers to nestmates on the nest surface. The latter then take provisions into the nest. (Sugden & McAllen, 1994)

Hastings et al. (1998) sampled six mature nests collected in the lower Rio Grande Valley with the following characteristics:

Range  (n=6)

Wt. (kg)

 1.1 to 3.1

No. of wasps 3496 to 18,698
No. of queens 60 to 1529
No. of males 0 to 1017
No. of workers 3310 to 17,454

Sugden & McAllen (1994) in their survey of the lower Rio Grande Valley found that the wasps foraged on a number of common native and exotic flower species for nectar and to collect honeydew from aphids and psyllids. Predation was observed on flower-mining larvae of the weevil Anthonomus aeneolus and on a moth, Alucitidae sp. Robber flies and spiders regularly preyed on adult B. mellifica. Nests were attacked by woodpeckers and probably small mammals that consume brood and honey-containing combs. 

The wasps survive off-seasons by feeding on their stores of honey. the nest being perennial and persistent for several years. It appears that the larvae are fed exclusively on the honey and pollen, an unusual diet for wasps. 

Workers are mild mannered by vespid wasp standards but sting hard when sufficiently provoked. The sting is barbed and stays in the wound if the victim is a human or other large animal. (Hogue, 1993)

Similar Species:  

There are 12 species of Brachygastra (Naumann, 1968) that range from South Texas to Northern Argentina (Hogue, 1993) but only B. mellifica reaches the U.S.

Of the 12 species of Brachygastra, the best known are:

Brachygastra lecheguana (Latreille, 1824)
Brachygastra mellifica
(Say, 1837)

Pachodynerus nasidens has a similarly yellow-banded abdominal tip, but the first gastral segment is distinctly larger

Weblink: Brachygastra mellifica - Wikipedia

Photo: Mexican Honey Wasp - San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas - January 6, 2008

Etymology: Brachygastra mellifica

brachy (G). Short
gast, =er, -ero, -r, -ro (G). The stomach, belly
mell, -i, -it (L). Honey
fic, =ation (L). Make, making

Alternate English name: Mexican Bee

Biography: Thomas Say (1787 1834) - Wikipedia


Bibliography:

Bequaert, J. 1933. The Nearctic social wasps of the subfamily Polybiinae (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Entomologia Americana 13: 87-149.

Borror, D.J. 1960. Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms. National Press Books, Palo Alto. 134 pp.

Cameron. 1907. Invertebrata Pacifica 1:181.

Evans, H.E. & M.J.West-Eberhard. 1970. The Wasps. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 265 pp.

Hastings, M.D., D.C. Queller, F. Eischen & J.E. Strassmann. 1998. Kin selection, relatedness and worker control of reproduction in a large-colony epiponine wasp, Brachygastra mellifica. Behavioral Ecology, 9(6): 573-581.

Hogue, C. 1993. Latin American Insects and Entomology. University of California Press, Berkeley. xiv + 594 pp.

Naumann, M.G. 1968. A revision of the genus Brachygastra (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). University of Kansas Science Bulletin, 47: 929-1003.

Richards, O.W. 1978. The social wasps of the Americas, excluding. the Vespinae. British Museum (Natural History), London. 580 pp.

Schwarz, H.F. 1929. Honey wasps. Natural History, 29(4): 421-426.

Soares, J.J. & F.M. Lara. 1994. Predation of Anthonomus grandis Boh. by Brachygastra lecheguana (Latreille) (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Anais da Sociedade Entomologica do Brasil, 23(1): 135-136

Sugden, E.A. & R.L. McAllen. 1994. Observations on foraging, population and nest biology of the Mexican honey wasp, Brachygastra mellifica (Say) in Texas (Vespidae: Polybiinae). Journal of Kansas Entomological Society, 67(2): 141-155.


05 Dec 2008   Mike Quinn / Texas Entomology