Mexican Honey Wasps

a Mexican honey wasp building a new hive
Did you know that Mexican honey wasps are one of the primary pollinators of avocados in Mexico?

The Mexican honey wasp is not like the more common species of wasp which are naturally aggressive. However, it is also not exactly like the common European honey bee. This species belongs to both species, being both part honeybee and part wasp.

The Mexican honey wasp is one of the only wasps that produces honey at all, and they do so in large quantities, similar to the European honeybee

Mexican Honey Wasp Classification
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Vespidae
Genus: Brachygastra
Species: Brachygastra mellifica
Table of Contents
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    What Is the Mexican Honey Wasp?

    Mexican honey wasps are social wasps that live in large colonies. Mexican honey wasps construct their homes from paper nests that are most commonly found high up in the canopies of trees or shrubs. Brachygastra mellifica is the official name of the Mexican honey wasp.

    Belonging to the Brachygastra genus, the Mexican honey wasp makes its habitat in the forested, humid environments of the Neotropical region. Mexican honey wasps consume both native and exotic plant nectars, as well as insect larval protein in their diet.

    There are twelve known species of Brachygastra whose colonies have been documented all the way from south-eastern Arizona and southern Texas to the northern parts of Argentina. B. mellifica (Mexican honey wasp) is the only species that has been recorded in the U.S.

    Why Are They Called Mexican Honey Wasps?

    The Mexican Honey Wasp has been given the name of the “mellifica” species which means “honey making”

    Mexican honey wasps belong to the genus Brachygastra, which means “short-stomach.” Their scientific name describes Mexican honey wasps’ appearance and function: short-stomach honey-making wasps.

    Mexican honey wasps live in a Neotropical environment, being found primarily in Mexico as well as other countries in South and Central America. However, there are a few exceptions in the states bordering Mexico in the south.

    Among Mexican cultures, these wasps are considered delicacies, thus the name Mexican honey wasp.

    Where Can Mexican Honey Wasps Be Found?

    Mexican honey wasps can be found in humid forests or subtropical environments in Neotropical regions. Mexican honey wasps are native to Central and South America, but can also be found along the Mexico border in parts of Arizona and Texas.[1]

    Is Mexican Honey Wasp Honey Safe to Eat?

    Honey produced by Mexican honey wasps generally is considered safe to consume and has been harvested for consumption and sale by human collectors for more than a century in Central and South America.

    Entomologists have taken samples from natural Mexican honey wasp nests and confirmed common floral sources such as sunflower, mesquite, and honeydew.[2] 

    During the bloom period of these plants, there is a possibility that the honey produced by Mexican honey wasps will become tainted and poisonous due to the proximity of toxic plants within their natural harvest range, such as Datura.

    Early accounts describe the use and collection of honey by indigenous peoples of Mexico and Brazil, accurately describing the nest of the Mexican honey wasp, confirming a longstanding tradition. Mexican honey wasps honey is still collected and sold regularly in some parts of Central and South America.

    A Mexican honey wasp is reported to produce honey that is strongly scented and crystallizes faster than that produced by a common European honeybee. In the same way as a honeybee, the Mexican honey wasp gathers nectar from a variety of flowering plants.

    The Popolocas people of Los Reyes Metzontla, Mexico, enjoy both honey and the larvae of the Mexican honey wasp as delicacies.

    How Can a Mexican Honey Wasp Be Identified?

    You can identify the Mexican honey wasp by their one-quarter to one-third of an inch (or 7-9 mm) length and dark-coloured thorax and head. Mexican honey wasps are members of the Brachygastra genus, which is distinguished by its well-known abdomen shape, which is usually as long as it is wide, and is ornamented with yellow and dark bands.

    As with all wasps, the female Mexican honey wasp does have a stinger. Their sting is barbed and stays in the wound if the victim is a human or other large animal. The Mexican honey wasp is different from other wasp species in that it has a higher proportion of hair on its body, head, and legs. This enables it to contribute to pollination efforts.

    Mexican honey wasp worker males are similar in appearance to the females, apart from the stinger. A Mexican honey wasp queen can be identified by her dark abdomen, which is a shade of brown tinged with red.

    Where Do Mexican Honey Wasps Live?

    Mexican honey wasps live in paper nests in the canopies or branches of trees and shrubs that resemble basketballs or large footballs. Mexican honey wasps create paper nests by chewing wood, mixing it with their saliva, and spitting it back out. When dry, it will harden and form the exterior of the nest.

    The Mexican honey wasp is a swarm-founding colony. A Mexican honey wasp swarm can consist of several hundred wasps that work together to form an enclosure of up to 10-15 cm in diameter in just a few days.

    Mature Mexican honey wasp nests, which measure 40-50 cm in length, are shaped like capsules with downward extensions and a bottom-facing entrance. Nests are generally placed between 1 and 9 meters above ground level.

    Four Mexican honey wasps emerging from their paper nest
    Did you know that a Mexican honey wasp colony can contain as many as 18,000 wasps?

    Foragers standing guard and delivering food to the wasps inside the nest are another way to identify a Mexican honey wasp nest.

    The lower combs of a Mexican honey wasp nest are formed in vertically stacked tiers that are supported both at their edges by the outer envelope and centrally by inter-comb pedestals. It is common for there to be ten to twenty large combs built around a common center.

    How Big Is A Mexican Honey Wasp Colony?

    A Mexican honey wasp colony can contain as many as 18,000 wasps. A swarm of hundreds of Mexican honey wasps works together to build the nest, which can measure as much as 10-15 cm in just a few days. When their nest is full of honey, it weighs up to several pounds.

    According to a study conducted on Brachygastra mellifica colonies, smaller colonies containing around 3,496 queens contained 60 queens, while larger colonies over 18,000 contained as many as 1,529 queens.

    What Does the Mexican Honey Wasp Eat?

    Brachygastra mellifica (Mexican honey wasp) is a honey-producing wasp, and therefore must collect a carbohydrate source in order to feed. Mexican honey wasps primarily collect nectar from wild or exotic flowering plants, such as sunflowers, mesquite, and honeydew.[3]

    During the off-season, Mexican honey wasps survive by consuming their honey supplies and their nests are perennial, which means they can last for several years.

    The larvae of Mexican honey wasps are exclusively fed honey and pollen. This is another distinction that separates them from other wasp species who typically feed their brood on insect proteins also.

    It has also been observed that Mexican honey wasps exhibit predatory behavior toward Asian citrus psyllid nymphs. Mexican honey wasps have been observed feeding on these nymphs in sweet orange and lemon groves, where they are known to cause severe damage or greening of citrus trees. 

    Mexican honey wasps are particularly useful for grove farmers during the high nymph population period between July and September.[4] 

    Do Mexican Honey Wasps Pollinate?

    Much like honey bees, Mexican honey wasps play a critical role in pollination. The Mexican honey wasp collects nectar, contributes to pollination efforts, and feeds on harmful insects like the Asian citrus psyllid.

    Due to their hairy bodies, Brachygastra mellifica (Mexican honey wasps) are pollinators, unlike most wasp species that have smooth bodies.

    Mexican honey wasps’ heads, thoraxes, legs, and thoracic cavities collect pollen as they fly around collecting nectar. In Mexico, the Mexican honey wasp was discovered to be one of the main pollinators for avocado crops.[5]

    Do Mexican Honey Wasps Sting?

    In the absence of disturbance, Mexican honey wasps are considered non-aggressive, but they are capable of stinging if they believe that their nest is being threatened.

    The Mexican honey wasp’s sting is barbed, which allows it to remain in the wound if the victim is a human or a large animal. When Mexican honey wasps cooperate with their nestmates in order to defend their colony, sting attacks can be severe. 

    Mexican honey wasps are able to sting repeatedly, in contrast tooney bees, which can sting only once. This heightens the danger of a potential swarm attack.

    Generally speaking, worker wasps of the Brachygastra mellifica (Mexican honey wasp) species are more mild-mannered than other vespid wasp species, which can attack unprovoked. 

    Whenever relocating a Mexican honey wasp nest, or threatening their nest as they perceive it, all precautions should be taken. This includes professional assistance, protective clothing, and the smoking technique commonly used when moving honey bees.

    It was observed by entomologists in Rio Bravo, Mexico that Mexican honey wasps also prey on natural predators, including robber flies, spiders, and woodpeckers as well as humans. These creatures were all observed attacking the nests of Mexican honey wasps at different times.

    Mexican Honey Wasp Reproduction and Lifecycle

    Colonies of Mexican honey wasps are populated with many fertile females or polygynous queens, which means that there is more than one egg-laying female per nest. In larger Brachygastra mellifica (Mexican honey wasp) colonies of up to 18,000, they were found to contain over 1,500 queens.

    The majority of the Mexican honey wasp colony consists of female workers, and each queen will only mate with one male. In general, single-queen colonies produce new queens, while multiple-queen colonies produce males. 

    The female workers of the Mexican honey wasp colony are responsible for collectively monitoring their colony and allowing the queens to lay male eggs when there is no need for any more female workers.

    The lifecycle of the Mexican honey wasp differs from that of most wasps. This is another way in which they operate more like honey bee colonies. 

    The Mexican honey wasp lives in a perpetual colony, producing and storing honey for feeding the entire colony over the winter, always supporting the entire collective. As compared to other wasp species, they do not appear to exhibit the same kind of social breakdown.


    [1] Agrilife [2] JSTOR [3] Digital Library [4] Bioone [5] Avocado Source 

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