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Honey Bee vs Yellow Jacket

The members of the insect world share many common characteristics and some major differences. One pairing that causes a lot of confusion for folks who are not “bee savvy” is honey bee vs yellow jacket. These two insects are often mistaken for one another causing some unnecessary concern. Once you understand their differences you are better equipped to share the world with them.

Comparing Honey Bees and Yellow Jackets

When we review these closely related members of the insect world, there are similarities to note. In regards to development from egg to adult, the life cycle of a honey bee is not very different than that of the yellow jacket.

Close up picture of a worker honey bee vs a worker yellow jacket image.

Both insects live in colonies-where a mated queen is responsible for laying eggs. Workers in the colony share the work of taking care of the brood. Yet even here, some differences between honey bee vs yellow jacket are noticeable.

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The wasp queen initially takes care of the first brood in the nest. While in a honey bee colony, a queen bee has no role in care of young.

Inside of a yellow jacket nest shows the stages of brood development similar to honey bees image.

Differences Between Honey Bees & Yellow Jackets

When exploring the differences between honey bees and yellow jackets, we must understand that a yellow jacket is not a bee. It is a member of the wasp family. Specifically wasps from the Vespula and Dolichovespula genera.

This distinction may be of little importance to you-if you are being chased by stinging insects. But, it makes it much easier to understand the reason for the differences between these insects.

Taxonomy of Bees & Wasps

Taxonomy is a method of scientific classification that is used to show how one thing is related to another. It involves naming, describing and classifying all types of life.

Bees and wasps are both members of the order “Hymenoptera” – which also includes ants! While yellow jackets are in the wasp family, they are distinctive from other types of wasps.

Appearance

If angry insects are telling you to walk away, you may not have the time or peace of mind to be able to identify what they are.

However, upon close inspection – it is easy to distinguish the difference between a honey bee and a yellow jacket. They have different body and leg structure.

Honey bees are often a gold or brown color with some striping. The bee body and legs are covered in fine hair. Their legs are flat and wide.

Honey bees have special structures on their hind legs that allow them to collect pollen for the colony. These pollen baskets are actually stiff hairs – not baskets.

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A bee’s abdomen and mid-section is round. Even though you can see the point where the body sections connect, there is no true small “waist” on a bee.

Fuzzy body of honey bee pollinators on a flower image.

A yellow jacket has a similar yellow and black pattern. But, there is less variation in this color. They all look alike to me.

Their body is long and slender with a smooth appearance. They do have some body hair but much less than a fuzzy bee. The legs are round and waxy. They have no structure to collect pollen because they do not need it.

A classic feature of the yellow jacket is the true “wasp waist”. This term was borrowed by the women’s fashion industry and used to denote a very thin waist.

Yellow jacket worker on a blade of grass image.

Diet of Bees and Wasps

The honey bee diet consists of primarily nectar and pollen products. Plant nectar is collected from blooming plants and converted into honey.

Pollen is also gathered by forager bees and transformed into bee bread. It is the sole protein source for the colony and vital to rearing young.

Both honey and bee bread are easily digested by bees and store well for months inside the hive. Not every bee in the colony consumes the same diet – it depends on their current job.

Yellow jackets are not vegetarians by any measure. They are insect predators. Sleek and fast, they catch other insects for their protein needs. This is why they do not need pollen.

In fact, yellow jackets prey on honey bees too. They can become a major problem during late Summer – a time when the colonies are large.

Beekeepers are often frustrated by them hanging around the front entrance of a hive. Looking for a weak bee to grab or the chance to steal a taste of honey. Some use homemade yellow jacket traps in the apiary.

Yes, these wasps do consume carbohydrates. They do have a sweet tooth. That is why you will see them trying to get a sip of your soda at the picnic.

Yellow Jackets wasp capturing a honey bee image.

Behavior Differences

One major difference between honey bee vs yellow jacket is behavior. Any beekeeper can tell you that a hive with thousands of honey bees can be easier to deal with than 20 yellow jackets.

The honey bee is a gathers resources from plants. As long as you are not too close to their home, you can safely watch foragers at work. They are unlikely to sting a human unless they feel threatened.

Honey bees have a barbed stinger that usually becomes embedded in your skin. Only able to sting once, most die afterwards.

Yellow jackets are predators. They have attitude and plenty of it. Some people say that they sting just for fun. I don’t know if that is true.

But, I do know that their ability to sting repeatedly is reason enough to leave them alone. Unlike honey bees, they have smooth wasps stingers that can zap you again and again.

Nesting Habits

Honey bees are social insects that live in large colonies. Their nest is occupied year round and the same one may be used for years.

Food is stored during Summer for use in Winter when collecting food is not possible. Honey bees do not hibernate. But, they become inactive on cold days. Surviving inside the hive, clustered together and feeding on honey – they await warm temperatures.

The bee nest is composed of several sheets of beeswax called honeycomb. Honey bee workers produce beeswax from special glands on their body.

Each sheet of comb has thousands of wax cells. This is where the colony stores food for Winter and raises new baby bees.

A yellow jacket nest is very different. Their nest is often in the ground – though you may find them in a wall cavity or crawl space. We had a large nest in between bales of hay in the top of our barn one year – that was fun.

The nest is made of sections similar to that of bees. However, it is not made of wax. A wasp nest is grey papery material made by mixing raw wood with their saliva.

At the end of the season, the nest will be abandoned. It is not reused the next season. In fact, most of the Yellow jacket colony members die at the first freeze.

Only mated queens live until Spring to start a new nest. They hibernate in garden debris and under bark until Spring.

Sheets of honeycomb from bee nest vs layers of paper nest of yellow jacket image.

Benefits to the Ecosystem

Honey bees are appreciated for their well known contribution to the pollination of food crops. Able to be moved in large families, bee pollination plays a major role in modern agriculture. Having a hive in your backyard will also boost the yield of your vegetable garden.

But, Yellow jackets and other wasps are beneficial too. They capture and kill many insects that would become pests in the garden. Nature needs a balance. Too many flies, spiders or caterpillars is a problem. Wasps help keep the balance in check.

FAQs About Honey Bees vs Yellow Jacket Wasps

Is it a bee or a yellow jacket?

If it is blocky and fuzzy it is a bee not a yellow jacket. Another tip, if it is carrying pollen on its legs – it is a bee!

Do yellow jackets make honey?

No. Yellow jackets are members of the wasp family. They hunt other insects and have no reason to store honey.

Why are yellow jackets especially bad in late Summer?

This is the time of year when their colony have the largest population.

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