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Is It a Honeybee, a Bumblebee, a Hornet, a Wasp or Something Else?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Know the difference between bees and wasps

Summertime brings pests to the garden that can be perplexing in identifying something as seemingly as simple as whether the flying interloper is a honeybee, a bumblebee, a hornet, a wasp or something else. Here are some quick facts to help you distinguish which is which.

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Studies have shown that although the number of snake-bite related deaths in the US have risen, it turns out that the top contender for fatal venomous animal encounters while outdoors consistently remains due to stings from bees, wasps, and hornets. In fact, the CDC reports that from 2000–2017, a total of 1,109 deaths from hornet, wasp, and bee stings occurred, for an annual average of 62 deaths with approximately 80% of the deaths being among males.

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And while there has been much news this year about the Asian giant hornet a.k.a. the “murder hornet,” you are much more likely to come face to face with any one of the titled insects this summer.

So, if you see a winged stinger buzzing about, what should you look for instead of something to begin swatting about with? According to a recent reprint of an article from Mother Earth News, appearance in both look and manner matter. Here’s a summary of what they recommend as the defining characteristics.

Physical and Behavior Characteristics to Look For

• Both honeybees, bumblebees and wasps are pollinators and can be found sipping nectar from a flower for food. However, bees are pollen eaters; whereas, wasps, in contrast, are meat eaters. Wasps are more likely to be observed dragging away another insect to use as food for its young rather than actively collecting pollen. While bumblebees do collect pollen like a honeybee, they do not produce a surplus of honey and therefore are not collected by beekeepers.

• A bee’s body typically appears rounder, fatter with more of a hairy appearance, whereas wasps tend to look more like Olympic swimmers, devoid of hair and skinny-waisted. However, some species of bees have only a small amount of hair on their bodies and can be as thin as a typical wasp.

• Compared to honeybees, bumblebees are more robust appearing, larger in girth, have more hairs on their body and are colored with yellow, orange and black. Their wings are darker in color and the tip of their abdomen is more rounded. Honeybees on the other hand are relatively more slender, have fewer body hairs and wings that are closer to being translucent. The tip of their abdomen is also more pointed than that of the bumblebee.

• Bees spend a greater amount of time on flowers than wasps do, which is evidenced by the characteristic coating of hundreds of tiny grains of pollen on the bee’s body. If you watch a suspect insect closely, a bee will groom itself, using its legs to wipe all the pollen to the back of its body, into spaces between special stiff bristles on its legs or belly. A wasp does not have the same thick legs with pollen-storing hairs, but instead has legs than tend to be comparatively longer and spindly looking.

• Because wasps are carnivorous, they are more likely to be that bothersome insect flitting over your plate during your backyard barbeque in search of animal proteins on your plate. However, when it comes to sugary drinks, both bees and wasps and other stinging insects will be attracted to your meal.

• The wings of bees lay flat across their thorax and overlap over the abdomen, while the wings of wasps run more parallel as dark strips on either side of the thorax.

• Wasps, hornets, bumblebees and yellow jackets are usually nested in the ground. Some however, prefer to latch onto a nearby structure such as along fences, under eaves and decks, windowsills, or in almost any hole or cavities they can find around your home. In these cases, a paper mache-like open umbrella shaped nest with hexagonal cells; or, dried mud daub are signs of wasp activity around your home.

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• Honeybees nest from within hollowed trees or from a hanging branch, and its waxy honey-combed hive appearance is a good differentiator from that of other stinging insects such as hornets which make a closed football shaped paper mache-like hive surrounded by smooth walls.

• Both bees and wasps and hornets can and will attack as a swarm when they feel attacked or threatened. However, while honeybees can only sting once because they lose their stinger when puncturing human skin, bumblebees, hornets and wasps can and will sting repeatedly.

For a More Visual Approach, here is a YouTube Video Showing Differences Between Bees and their Look-alikes

What to Do When a Bee or Wasp is Bothering You

The commonsense advice typically given is to resist the urge to swat at a suspected stinging insect whether it be a wasp or a bee or a hornet. Their vision is such that movement gets their attention and making any quick or jerky movements near them or a nest are interpreted as a threat. There presence is likely because they are detecting a potential food source, but will leave if you take the time to cover a plate or glass until they go away.

What to Do When Stung

In case of a sting from any insect, whether it be a bee, wasp, hornet or something else, a thick paste made from baking soda and water applied immediately to the injury will lessen the reaction and provide some relief.

If you feel more than just a sting, however, like a sudden onset of experiencing nausea, dizziness, constricted breathing, a weak and/or rapid pulse, skin flushing, etc. you might be having an anaphylactic reaction to the venom and could go into shock very quickly. Immediately call for help as an injection from an epi pen is the typical course of treatment, of which your quickest resource is from a medic on an ambulance or a nearby clinic.

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Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image courtesy of Pixabay illustrating a Western Honeybee

References:

How to Identify Bees and Wasps” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, Mother Earth News, Mar. 2018.

QuickStats: Number of Deaths from Hornet, Wasp, and Bee Stings,* Among Males and Females — National Vital Statistics System, United States,†2000–2017” CDC Weekly July 26, 2019 / 68(29); 649.

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