A meat bee is not a bee at all, but a wasp from either the Vespula or Dolichovespula genus. Meat bees are also known as “yellowjackets,” especially in the United States. Outside North America, they are more commonly referred to as “wasps.” Humans and yellowjackets often have contentious relationships, because these wasps can be quite aggressive about defending their territory.
The term “meat bee” is a reference to the fact that these wasps feed primarily on other insects. In fact, they can be quite beneficial as neighbors, since they eat an assortment of insect pests. They will also scavenge if they find meat lying around, as many picnickers have learned. In the fall, when the wasps need to store up energy, they may also scavenge on sweet drinks and fruit for the sugar.
Bees and wasps are close relatives, but they are very different creatures, despite the fact that they look similar enough for some people to refer to wasps as bees. One of the key differences between wasps and bees is that bees have evolved to feed on nectar and pollen, while wasps eat a variety of foods, depending on their species. In the case of the meat bee, humans are primarily concerned with the potential for painful stings which may be dealt out by a nest of infuriated wasps in self-defense.
A meat bee nest starts with a queen, who overwinters in a protective cocoon. She either takes over an animal burrow, or starts constructing a nest very close to the ground. The colony slowly grows, sometimes achieving a size of 1,500 individuals, and in the winter, the colony dies off with the cool weather. In temperate climates, a meat bee nest may endure through the winter, growing even larger the next year.
These social wasps are dangerous for humans because people often blunder into their nests, and the wasps respond by stinging in self-defense. For people with allergies to wasp stings, this can be quite dangerous. For everyone else, stings are painful and annoying, and they can sometimes cause medical problems if someone is stung by a large number of wasps. Wasps will also sting repeatedly, rather than just once, so after getting away from a wasp nest, it is a good idea to strip and shower to remove wasps from the body.
The meat bee should not be confused with the paper wasp, another social wasp which often lives close to humans. Paper wasps build chambered nests from a material which closely resembles paper, typically choosing high spots such as trees and eaves to nest in. These wasps are much less aggressive, unless they are disturbed, and some insect experts recommend leaving them as they are, rather than attempting to eradicate them.