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Understanding the Difference Between Bees and Wasps

People love learning about insects. In reference to bees, no one feels more strongly about this topic than beekeepers. Still we are not the only ones who want to understand the difference between bees and wasps. Aren’t all flying insects very much alike? Actually – no. While all insects have some similarities, they can be very different too! As a beekeeper, I receive many questions about all types of bees. Let’s explore the characteristics of these two insect types.

Honey bee on flower and wasp on container image.

How Bees and Wasps are Different

When they are buzzing around your head, identification is not easy – especially when they are in flight. This is no surprise as bees and wasps do have things in common.

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Both are insects that fly and forage for food and both have the ability to sting you if you get too close or they feel threatened.

While we may enjoy watching bees fly and forage for food, no one wants to experience getting stung. Learning more about each type of insect may save you or your family some painful stings in the future.

Beekeepers Don’t Manage Wasps

We beekeepers come into contact with a lot of people who don’t really understand the differences bees and wasps.

In fact, we spend a lot of time explaining how bees are different. Not every flying black and yellow insect is a honey bee 🙂

If you are a beekeeper, you will be asked – you are the bee expert right? Well, there are thousands of kinds and we don’t know everything about every bee in the world. 

But, we do enjoy studying insects.  The diversity of the insect world is amazing. Both bees and wasps and other beneficial insects have a place in our world.

Can you tell the differences bees vs wasps image.

What is a Wasp? 

Let’s begin by defining some terms. In Scientific Classification, the term “Wasp” applies to  members of the order – Hymenoptera –  that are not a bee or an ant.

Okay, so we see right away that a wasp is not a bee. Even though I myself have been guilty of saying – ” oh, look out for that bee” – when in fact it was an angry red wasp!

Many people believe all flying, stinging insects are bees. Though they are closely related, wasps and honey bees have some rather important differences.

Much more than just a classification on some scientific chart, these differences cover many aspects of their daily lives. From diet to temperament, we see not one difference but many between these insects. 

The Honey Bee is a “Bee”

The honey bee is one of the most well-known bees in the world. Along with native bees,  honey bees are important too. They pollinate many plants that provide food for humans and wildlife.

The honey bee diet consists of nectar, honey and pollen. Normally insects are not something that bees eat.

While wasps also enjoy an occasional nip of sweet nectar. This is the reason they are such a bother at picnics. Wasps eat meat.

In general, the diet of a wasp and a bee will be very different. One is a meat eater and the other is not! One is a gatherer of pollen and nectar and the other is a predator.

Do Wasps Attack Honey Bees?

Yes, sometimes they do cause problems for beehives. Wasps are predators. They dine on other insects such as caterpillars, worms, ants and yes, sometimes honey bees.

Yellow jacket wasp attacking a honey bee image.

A strong colony of honey bees can defend itself against Wasp attacks but weak hives are in danger. In fact, when wasp colonies are at their peak population (late Summer), they can destroy a small bee colony.

Bees and Wasps Diets

Both bees and wasps are attracted to our sugary sweet drinks. The wasps however are a lot bossier about it.

Attitude or temperament is one major differences between these 2 insects. The mild mannered honey bee is usually content to sip plant nectar.

The bold wasp however seems to enjoy being a party crasher. A most unwelcome guest at any picnic. I’ve found its best to just protect the food before the wasps get a taste.  

If you are planning a picnic in late Summer, expect a few uninvited visitors. Inexpensive food covers or even a screen tent can make for a much more pleasant outdoor event.

Honey bee foraging on flower for nectar image.

Honey Bee Appearance

If you look closely, you will see that there is a visual difference between bees and wasps. Do you dare to take a closer look ?  Yes, she won’t mind if you look closer-if she is indeed a bee.

Honey bees have thick bodies covered in tiny fine hair. (Even the bees’ eyes have hair !)

These tiny hairs pick up and move pollen grains from flower to flower.  That’s pollination and it is an important role for honey bees.

The hind legs of a honey bee hang down as they fly and are flat. You will sometimes see colorful balls of pollen on their hind legs. Even Bumble Bees are fuzzy and they collect pollen too!

Close up of a honey bee with proboscis extended image.

What a Wasp Looks Like

Wasps have shiny sleek bodies with no hair and small waists. (Have you ever heard of the term – “wasp waist”?)

Their hind legs are not flat but rounded.  You will not see a wasp carrying ball of pollen on its legs. They do not rely on pollen as a protein source for young.

Their appearance gives the impression of speed and stealth. The anatomical difference of bees and wasps clearly show their different lifestyles. There are several wasp species worldwide but paper wasps are some of the most common types.

Adult paper wasp on a green leaf image.

Differences in Colony Life

Honey bees are social insects that live in large groups. A colony contains 40,000 to 60,000 members during the summer.

Normally the colony will have 1 queen honey bee and thousands of workers.  Honey bees do not hibernate but survive winter on food gathered and stored earlier in the season.

Wasps can be social or solitary insects. Large social wasp colonies  have 10,000 members. (For example – Yellow Jacket Wasps).

This is why we often notice wasps colonies during the peak of summer.  This is the time of year when the colony is largest.

Each Fall, all the members of the social wasp family will die – except for a few mated queens.

Upon the approach of cold weather, the queen wasp will hibernate in piles of leaves or wood debris. She emerges in the Spring to build a new nest and lay eggs.

As new workers hatch they will help with the duties of the nest. (Solitary wasps prepare a nest and raise young alone. These include insects such as the mud dabber wasp.  They build nests of….mud!)

Beehives & Wasp Nests

It is always a good idea to respect the space of any insect nest. Is it a wasp nest or a honey bee hive?

Honey Bee Hive

The home of the a honey bee colony is called a hive. Honey bees produce wax from glands on their abdomens.

The wax is shaped into hexagonal cells creating sheets of parallel honeycombs. The beehive may be in a hollow tree or a man made hive box.  The hive is used year after year.

A Wasp Nest is Annual

Wasps do not have wax glands. Their nests are made of a paper like substance consisting of wood pulp.

Wood fibers gathered from weathered wood are chewed and mixed with saliva. Once wet it is used to construct nests for brood rearing. ( Wasps know how to do paper mache ! Who knew?)

Some wasps build nest above ground perhaps under the eaves of your home.  Yellow Jacket Wasps often build their nest in the ground.  These can be a big surprise in late summer.

Bee Stings vs Wasp Stings

Both of these insects have the capacity to sting. A sting from either insect will hurt!  But, there are some different physical characteristics in the stingers involved.

A honey bee stinger has a barb on the end.  This causes the stinger to embed in your skin. When a honey bee stings you, the stinger can not be removed by the bee.

The stinger and venom sack will rip from her body. She literally gives her life to defend the hive. 

We are referring to the worker bee who defends the colony. Queen bees have a smooth stinger and can sting people but she rarely does.

Wasps are predators with smooth, non-barbed stingers.  This gives them the capacity for stinging multiple times. This mechanism is important to the wasp who hunts live prey.  Properly placed stings will subdue prey. 

Yellow jacket wasp at picnic cartoon image.
No one wants any type of “bee” at their picnic. But honey bees are much more welcome than wasps.

Difference in Temperament

Honey bees are defensive but not generally aggressive. (Though you can have an aggressive colony sometimes).

Honey bees go about their work of collecting nectar, pollen and water with little thought for humans. You will rarely be stung by a honey bee if you leave her in peace and stay away from her hive.

Wasps are more aggressive. They can be easily provoked and will attack quickly.

Wasps have pheromones (as do bees) that mark a sting site. If one wasp stings you, the other angry nest mates might get involved as well. 

Hornet wasp nest in a tree image.
This is a hornet nest – NOT a bee hive. Stay away – far away.

A Nod to The Hornets (the other wasps)

Yes, hornets are actually a subspecies of wasps. I felt they deserved a special mention because their sting “packs a punch”. 

These large very aggressive predators, are social wasps living in large colonies. The nest can have several thousand workers and 1 queen.

Hornet stings hurt, I mean they really hurt. They are also defensive of their hive and can be aggressive around food sources. Teach your children to understand what a hornet nest looks like. Tell them to stay away. Far Away.

(The insect called a Bald Faced Hornet is not a true hornet but a species of yellow jacket wasp). It does not matter what you call it, if it stings you it will hurt !)

A Final Look at Bees vs Wasps

Though related and alike in some ways, you will find many different characteristics between bees and wasps. However, both share a place and a purpose in our world.

Knowing how to identify these insects will keep your family safer when outdoors. Plant flowers and enjoy watching the honey bees.  Watch out for wasps, they don’t play !

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2 Comments

  1. Charlotte I was wondering when we get our packets do we need to feed then pollen supplement along with the sugar water to keep them healthy till they get on there feet

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