Need help identifying those black and yellow bugs flying around your backyard? There are multiple differences between bees and wasps in terms of appearance, diet, behavior, and aggression. Below, we’ll provide a general overview so that if you spot one of these buzzing insects on your property, you should be able to distinguish whether it’s a type of bee or a wasp.
It’s important to note that there are over 4,000 native bee species and over 4,000 wasp species in the United States. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on the more general characteristics of the bees and wasps you’re most likely to encounter.
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In general, bees tend to have fine, downy hair, which comes in handy because pollen clings to it via static electricity. While bee body shapes can vary greatly, they tend to be more rounded than their wasp counterparts. Honeybees and bumblebees are both yellow to amber in color with stripes that vary from dark brown to black.
The wasps you’re most likely to find around your property are varieties of “social wasps,” such as hornets and yellowjackets. In general, the hairs on these bugs will be much less noticeable (think a military-style buzz cut). Their bodies are generally longer and more aerodynamic, which better suits a wasp’s need to dive and dart as it hunts other insects.
Yellowjackets, one of the most common U.S. wasps, have the distinctly “nipped waist” look that many wasps share. As their name suggests, they’re bright yellow and also have black stripes. Bald-faced hornets are pale yellow (almost white) and black with a thicker, more “bee-like” midsection. European hornets have similar coloring to a honeybee and a similar pill or bullet shape, but they are significantly larger, measuring about one inch long on average.
Bees subsist mainly on nectar, pollen, plant sap, and the honey they make. The hexagonal holes in a hive’s honeycomb actually function as miniature honey storage containers—no wonder so many creatures find honeycomb so delicious! Because bees are attracted to nectar, they’re also drawn to similarly sweet substances, like desserts and sugary beverages.
Wasps adults feed on sugars that they can get from various sources, including:
- Honeydew drawn out from plants by parasites like aphids
- Sugary liquid produced by wasp larvae
Young wasps are carnivorous. The adult wasps feed them other bugs that they’ve hunted and subdued. In some cases, the hunted bugs are not dead before they’re devoured. As gruesome as this sounds, wasps play an important role in “natural pest control,” as they help control populations of pests that are harmful to plants.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the world’s bees do not live in big, round hives. However, the bees that we’re used to encountering (the European honeybee and bumblebees) do build hives and live in colonies. A majority of the world’s bees are actually solitary and dig tunnels in the ground.
In the honeybee colonies that we in the U.S. tend to be most familiar with, there is a hierarchy that keeps the colony going: workers, drones, and a queen. The hives are typically located inside hollow trees or man-made structures (like beneath roof overhangs or in a home’s siding), and they may be scarcely visible except for a glimpse of some yellow honeycomb.
There are two distinct types of wasps: social and solitary. Social wasps live in colonies, like ants. Solitary wasps live and hunt alone, and they will use the venom on their stingers to subdue their prey. Interestingly, social wasps only use their stingers for defense, and they tend to capture and chew up prey for their young instead.
A social wasp colony is similar to a honeybee colony with workers and drones, and there may be one or several queens. Wasp nests tend to look like oblong balls or irregular shapes made of gray paper. Some wasp nests contain a honeycomb configuration, but it will look papery compared to the sticky, waxy look of a bee’s honeycomb. You can find wasp nests in the same above-ground locations as a beehive but in more unexpected places as well, including underneath benches and picnic tables and also underground.
Aside from species like Africanized honeybees (found mainly in New Mexico, Southern California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida), most bees will not attack you if you don’t disturb a hive or attack them first. So if a few bees hover nearby while you enjoy time outdoors, there’s generally no need to worry.
However, if bees do start buzzing around you aggressively and headbutting you, this is a sign that they want you to leave—bees don’t bump into people by accident. Hold your breath (as carbon dioxide can trigger them to attack) and retreat without waving your arms.
Like bees, wasps attack because they feel threatened. Unfortunately, setting off a wasp swarm doesn’t take much, especially for particularly aggressive species like yellowjackets and the bald-faced hornet.
Wasps can be startled by loud noises or even just the presence of another creature near their nest, and their attacks can be vicious. Unlike honeybee stingers, wasp stingers have no barbed lancets to catch on the flesh of whatever they sting, so a single sting does not kill them. Each wasp in a swarm can sting multiple times in a row in an effort to defend its nest without harming itself.