The Difference Betwen Bees and Wasps

Here at The Wallow, we have a lot of bees and we have a lot of wasps. Is there a difference? You bet!

Since I’m in love with bees and I hate wasps, it always bugs me when I hear someone confuse the two. The other day someone commented on a yellow jacket sting saying they hated bees. I piped up to say that yellow jackets are wasps, not bees. The other person said it didn’t much matter when you were being stung. Ah, but it does! It matters in the moment right before you think you’re going to be stung (because you might want to act differently depending on whether it’s a bee or a wasp), and it matters when you get stung (because one is just bothersome and one hurts like hell!)

Appearance

If you have a chance to take a look at the insect in question, there are clear physical differences between bees and wasps. Wasps have slender bodies and tiny legs, all visibly smooth. Bees have comparatively fat bodies with big legs,

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Photo by fesoj / CC BY 2.0

The reasons for these differences is in what they eat. Bees spend their time on plants, gathering and distributing pollen, and feeding it to their young. Their big bodies and hairiness help them hang on to pollen and move it around. Wasps are predators who mainly eat insects, arthropods, and flies. They even like the lunch meat at your picnic, which is why it’s typically a wasp menacing your outdoor party.

Stinger

Most of the time, neither bees nor wasps will go out of their way to sting you. However, both have backward-pointed barbs on their stinger which will hurt. If a honeybee stings you, its stinger will be pulled out, which will kill it. For wasps, though, it will live to sting again, and it probably will, unless you get away from each other. There are two exceptions to the idea that the bug doesn’t really want to sting you. One is yellow jackets, who are particularly aggressive. The other is once you’ve already been stung – if the bee or wasp has a colony within about 15 feet, the scent of the sting may make it back to the colony and lead family members to seek revenge on you. I’m not kidding.

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Photo by dgriebeling / CC BY 2.0

Other varieties

What about hornets, mud daubers, etc? All wasps. There are other kinds of bees, too, like carpenter bees, bumble bees, and digger bees. The easiest way to identify them all is the two classifications already mentioned: body shape/hairiness and where they are congregating (flowers vs your food).

What to do?

So what does it matter? You’re not going to stop to look at the hairs on something that you’re afraid is about to sting you. Fair enough. It helps to keep the differences in mind, though:

If you’re in your flower garden and an insect is buzzing around you, it’s likely a bee. If you start flailing about, you might run into it, causing a sting, whereas if you just stand still, all will be well, even if it lands on you. The bee might need a moment to determine that you’re not a flower, but then it’ll be on its way. If you’d like to get away, do so slowly. Just walk away, without making rapid or jerky movements.

If you’re at a picnic and insects (that aren’t flies) are buzzing around you, it’s probably wasps, with yellow jackets being the most likely culprit. Again, you don’t want to make crazy motions, because you might simply run into the stinger. However, it’s a little more important to get moving if you suspect wasps because they might sting you on purpose. Cover up any food that’s out and consider getting away from your spot.

If you get stung by a wasp, mind where it goes next, because it could be coming back around to sting you again. With a honeybee, remember, stinging you will kill it.

Whether bee or wasp, if you get stung, you might want to move from the area, in case retaliation is on the way. Treat your sting first, of course, if needed.

My Preference

This fall has illustrated the differences between wasps and bees for me quite clearly. Earlier in the fall I walked past a yellow jacket nest, which left me stung twice. Just last week, I stood near the front of a honeybee hive and watched the bees come and go for several minutes with no fear of stinging and no stings. I have been stung by a honeybee before, when I accidentally stepped on one in the yard. The sting was annoying. The two yellow jacket stings this year? Extremely painful, including some complete numbing of the area and loss of movement in the nearby joint.

Some still may not care about the difference between bees and wasps, but they are worlds apart for me.

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