What’s that yellow and black thing buzzing around your lemonade? Your first response might be, “It’s a bee.” But it might be a wasp. Let’s take a closer look. The distinction between wasp vs bee is important and can help you determine if you’re in danger of a sting (or two) and what role the insect plays in the ecosystem. Wasps and bees are closely related and, at first, a glance might seem very similar. However, there are many differences, not the least of which is how they look.
There are over one hundred thousand wasp species with various markings. However, they all share a similar body plan. Insects have three major body sections: the head, thorax, and abdomen. The thorax is their middle, while the head and abdomen are the front and rear ends, respectively. Wasps are slim with a narrow, pinched waist (a petiole) between their thorax and pointed abdomen. They also have smooth bodies with sparse, tiny hairs, and thin, tube-shaped legs.
The 20,000 species of bees have wider, round bodies, with a less pronounced waist and flat, paddle-like legs. They are fuzzy so that they can easily collect and transport pollen. There are some bees that look like wasps. Namely, the honeybee. It has a more pointed abdomen than other bees and is less fuzzy. However, to tell if it’s a honeybee vs a wasp, check for the petiole.
While many bees and wasps are yellow and black, including honeybees, bumblebees, and yellow jackets, some come in varying colors. Sweat bees are greenish blue. Carpenter bees are colored by sex: males are yellow, and females are black. Hornets have black bodies with yellow faces. Cuckoo wasps are shiny green or blue. Thread-waisted wasps are mostly black with an orange band on their waist and abdomen.
Some behavioral differences between wasps and bees stem from anatomical, lifestyle, and dietary differences. Female bees and wasps have stingers, which are modified egg-laying organs. Most can sting more than once. The honeybee can only sting a single time. Honeybee stingers are barbed, so they become stuck in the skin. When the bee flies away, the stinger is ripped from her body and she soon dies. Other bees and wasps also have barbed stingers. However, the barbs are smaller and some species can sheath them after they sting, allowing a smooth getaway. If you’re stung more than once, it’s definitely not a honeybee. This also makes honeybees less aggressive than other stinging insects. They only make this ultimate sacrifice if they feel attacked.
Stinging behavior also depends on lifestyle. There are social and solitary types of bees and wasps. Social insects live in communal nests or hives, in which different individuals perform specific roles. Solitary insects nest alone and usually seal their larvae in cells that they pre-pack with food. Social bees and wasps are much more likely to sting you in defense of their home than the solitary versions.
While bees are just as capable of stinging you as wasps are, they are less likely to because you won’t encounter them as much. Bees feed on nectar and pollen, which can only be obtained from flowers. They perform crucial pollination by picking up pollen at one flower and transporting it to another. They feed their larvae with pollen and honey, which they make from nectar. Wasps, on the other hand, have a more varied diet and don’t produce honey. Larval wasps eat other insects or carrion. This makes them important for pest control as well as decomposition. Adult wasps either lay their eggs within the body of an insect or gather insects or carrion to bring home. Adult wasps eat sugary substances, including a liquid made by larval wasps, nectar, fruit, and human food and drinks. The bug buzzing around your picnic or garbage bin is probably a wasp, and wasps will defend their food.
Both wasps and bees make a nest with hexagonal cells. But there are ways to tell if you’re looking at a bee or wasp nest. They differ most significantly in a material. Bees tend to make their nests out of wax, which they generate from honey. Some bees nest underground or in tree stumps and plant stems. They make cells for their larvae and fill them with nectar and pollen. One species of beelines the cells with flower petals and leaves. Wasps typically make their nests out of a papier-mâché-type of material that they produce by chewing up wood or paper and mixing it with their saliva. Even burrowing wasp species build a papery nest underground. Some wasps use soil instead of wood, creating mud nests.
While most wasps and bees abandon their nests after one summer, honeybees stand out. They overwinter huddled together within their hive. Near the end of winter, the queen lays eggs and the larvae subsist on leftover pollen and nectar from the summer. Because honeybees keep their hives and add to their population each year, around half must branch out periodically and start a new colony in a process called swarming. A few bees scout ahead for potential new homes.
While social bees and wasps are more likely to sting than solitary ones, most have the ability and it’s never fun to be on the wrong end of a bee or wasp stinger. Though there’s not much difference between a wasp sting vs a bee sting, honeybee stings are more dangerous for people with bee and wasp allergies. After a bee leaves her stinger behind, nerve cells cause the stinger to dig deeper and muscle cells push more venom into your skin. Social bees and wasps emit a pheromone when attacked or when they sting that alerts nearby members of their colony and triggers a full-on attack. Solitary bee and wasp stings tend to be less painful than those of social types. Hornets are considered to have the most painful sting. However, like other types, they only sting when they feel threatened.
The similarities between bees and wasps might make it seem difficult to tell them apart. However, there are many differences as well, some more apparent than others. We hope this article helps you the next time you spot a buzzing insect. Remember, both bees and wasps are beneficial to the environment and our lives. We should all do our best to let them live when we encounter them.