Differences Between Bees and Wasps

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People love learning about insects. Aren’t all flying insects very much alike? Actually – no. While they all have similarities, they can be very different too! Understanding the differences between bees and wasps help us understand their behaviors. We can then appreciate the role each plays in our ecosystem and keep ourselves safer from a bad encounter.

Close up shows differences between bees and wasps physical appearance.

How Bees and Wasps are Different

When they are buzzing around your head, it may be difficult to determine at a glance if you are seeing a bee or a wasp. Identification can be tricky – especially when insects are in flight.

Before we talk about the differences, there are many similarities too. Both wasps and bees fly and forage for food.

Also, they both have the ability to sting-if you get too close or they feel threatened. This is one of the main reasons it is beneficial to learn more about the ways wasps and honey bees differ.

Understanding their particular behavior patterns may save you or your family some painful stings in the future. And, it enables us to understand the importance of each and their contributions to the environment.

While we may enjoy watching bees fly in the garden, no one wants to experience getting stung. The same applies to pets – it is not unusual for dogs to snap and insect. Before you know it, your dog is stung by a bee or wasp.

Paper wasp females on their nest.

A Honey Bee is a “Bee”

One easy way to see the relationship and difference between any life form is to look at their scientific classification.

Much more than just a line on some scientific chart, these relationships help us understand why honey bees share similar characteristics yet – they differ from other insects in aspects of their daily lives.

But, scientific classification made this one a bit easy for us – the identity is right there in the name. The honey bee is “Apis mellifera“. Apis for “bee” and mellifera for “honey -producing.

You will find the name spelled both as 2 words and as a single word. I will leave the argument of the most correct interpretation to others.

What is a Wasp? 

We also find the many species of wasps in our chart. 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 wasp!

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Worker bee foraging on pink flower for nectar image.

Physical Characteristics

Though they are closely related, wasps and honey bees have some rather important physical differences. In fact, it is easy to tell them apart – if you can get them to sit still long enough.

The anatomical differences of bees and wasps help explain some of the behaviors and life style peculiarities for each one.

Honey Bee Appearance

Most of us would have little trouble being able to identify a honey bee. But, don’t get completely comfortable because there are other insects that look similar.

Honey bees have thick, compact bodies covered in fuzzy hair. (Even the bees’ eyes have hair!) No, this is not a fashion statement. These tiny branched hairs pick up and move pollen grains from flower to flower.

This makes the anatomy of a bee well-designed for plant pollination. Not surprisingly, bee pollination is one of the most important roles of a colony.

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. Pollen is taken back to the hive where it is converted into bee bread and used to feed young.

Many native bees are also designed for pollination. One of the most popular are the Bumble Bees. Honey bees and Bumble bees share some characteristics but the Bumbles are native.

Adult paper wasp on a green leaf 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”?) This is where the term originated.

The hind legs of a wasp 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. There are many wasp species but paper wasps are those most commonly seen near human dwellings.

Behavior and Nesting Differences

Understanding the behavior and nesting differences between bees and wasps is very important. Not only does this help us appreciate them better – it is also a safety measure.

We can co-exist and share the world in a more peaceful manner when we understand the needs of each.

Bee Behavior

Bees in general and honey bees in particular are not normally aggressive. You will rarely be stung by a honey bee-if you leave her in peace and stay away from her home.

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.

The honey bee nest is usually called a beehive. They may make a home in cavities inside a hollow tree or a man-made bee box. 

The hive is used year after year. Inside, bees produce wax from glands on their abdomen. The wax is shaped into hexagonal cells creating sheets of parallel honeycombs.

Wasp Behavior

Attitude or temperament – a major point of difference – between honey bees vs yellow jacket wasps. Wasps are more aggressive and territorial than their docile cousins.

It is the bold wasps that seem to enjoy being party crashers. 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.

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

Some wasps build nests above ground perhaps under the eaves of your home. Others, like Yellow Jacket Wasps, often build their nest in the ground. 

Unlike honey bees, wasps do not have wax glands. Their nest is 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?) All wasps nests are gone by Winter, they are only used for one season.

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

Solitary wasps prepare a nest and raise young alone. These include insects such as the mud dabber wasp. They build nests of….mud!)

Learn how to identify a wasp nest or a beehive. It may save you a few stings in the future.

Yellow jacket wasp attacking a honey bee image.

Diets

One of the major differences between bees and wasps is diet. One is a gatherer of pollen and nectar and the other is a predator. One is a meat eater and the other is not!

Bees are mostly herbivorous. Female worker bees collect things needed by the colony. This means not only what bees eat (nectar, pollen,) but also other resources.

However, wasps are predators. They prey on other insects such as caterpillars, worms, spiders, ants and yes, sometimes the wasp is a honey bee predator. They have only a minimal effect as pollinators because they do not purposely collect it.

Both bees and some wasps are attracted to sweets or sugary drinks. The wasps however are a lot bossier about it.

Stings and Defense Mechanisms

Both of these, wasps and bees have the capacity to sting and it will hurt! Keep some essential oils for bee sting relief on hand. But, there are some differences in the wasp sting.

A honey bee stinger has a barb on the end. A honey bee stings for defense. Then, she can not pull the stinger out of your skin. The stinger and venom sack will rip from her body – resulting in her death.

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

Do Wasps Attack Honey Bees?

Yes, sometimes they do cause problems for beehives. 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.

Various sizes of hornet wasp nests .

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. Teach your children to understand what a hornet nest looks like. Tell them to stay away. Far Away.

FYI -(The insect called a Bald-faced Hornet is not a true hornet but a species of yellow jacket wasp). But, hornet vs wasp – it does not matter what you call it, if it stings you it will hurt !)

Honey bee on white flower and yellow wasp hunting in field reflects difference in lifestyle.

FAQs

Do wasps make honey?

No, wasps do not make honey. They have no need to store food for Winter because the colony does not live over Winter.

Can bees sting more than once?

In most cases, honey bees can not sting humans or mammals more than once. Their barbed stinger get caught and rips from the body.

What is the main difference between honey bees vs wasps?

Honey bees collect nectar and pollen and make honey. Wasps are insect predators that depend on catching other insects for their food.

Final Thoughts

Though related and alike in some ways, you will find many differences 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. But, watch out for wasps, they don’t play !