Bees or Wasps | How to Tell Them Apart

Our EJBees Swarm Coordinator receives many-a phone call from people claiming to have a swarm of honey bees in their yard or home, most or many of which turn out to be yellow jacket wasps around their own nest. Or bald-faced hornets. Or sometimes even a family of roly-poly bumble bees.

Honey Bee versus Yellow Jacket

Body: Honey bee (Apis mellifera) and yellow jacket (Vespula pensylvanica, the most common species here) workers are about the same size—about a half-inch long.

Like all bees, whether large, medium, small or teensy, the honey bee has a stocky body, whereas all the wasps are slimmer. Unlike yellow jackets and all other wasps, bees do not show a thin waist between thorax and abdomen

Bees are “fuzzy” all over, from head to toe. Honey bee colors are amber tones, light to dark through shades of brown to black, depending on the genetic race (Italian, Caucasian, etc.)—never bright yellow. The BRIGHT yellow and black yellow jacket appears to be shiny and hairless: the hairs it has are sparse and small, nearly invisible to the naked eye.

Legs: Honey bees have wide, flat legs attached to the the thorax. The rear pair has special pollen baskets (corbiculae) made of stiff hairs.  Yellow jackets’ long, slender, yellow or black legs have no baskets.

Wings:  Bees and wasps have two wings on on each side of the thorax that hook together with comb-like teeth (hamuli) during flight for greater lift.  At rest, bee-wings fold flat on the back, wasp-wings to the sides of the body.

Stings: Honey bees are typically NOT aggressive except in response to rough intrusion into the hive. If a honey bee stings, its stinger remains in the puncture and the bee dies. Yellow jackets are more aggressive; they can (and do!) sting multiple times with a stinger that does not remain in the victim.

Nests: Honey bees and yellow jackets are both social insects living in family groups.

“Domestic” honey bees are housed in apiary hives; feral colonies are usually found in tree cavities high above the ground, once in awhile in attics or walls of buildings, but never underground.

Colonies in our temperate climate zone include 30,000 or more bees at peak summer season, and survive the winters in reduced numbers, feeding on stored honey.

Wasps build paper nests, sometimes suspended under eaves (see photo, right) or other protected spots, often underground (photo below), with the paper nest completely hidden in an abandoned animal burrow or log cavity, with just the entry tunnel visible at the ground surface. 

These wasp colonies rarely exceed 5,000, and do not persist over winter. Only newly emerged, mated queens survive to the next spring.

Swarms: Swarming is a fundamental and well organized part of honey bee life:  a colony splits itself in order to found a new colony with the existing queen and most of the foragers, leaving a new queen (or “swarm cells” to produce a new queen) in the original hive with the nurse bees and brood.

When it takes flight, a swarm typically bivouacs in a nearby tree or other convenient landing site within 100 feet of the old hive, while scouts find and evaluate a new hive location in which the swarm will settle.

Bees in the swarm have stored honey internally in their honey crops to transfer to the new hive, as soon as new comb will be drawn. They are calm, nonaggressive, simply focused on the task at hand. The queen is safely at the center of the condensed swarm.

Yellow jackets do not swarm.  There may be large numbers of wasps gathered at a site on occasion, such as around a beehive when attempting to rob honey, or defending their own nest. But they do not depart from their nest in en masse with their queen in a colony-founding swarm.

Hornets

The only “hornet” in our area is the bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), which is actually a species of yellow jacket wasp, not a true hornet (genus Vespa).

Its appearance is distinctive, with black and white coloration and markings, and it is bigger than honey bees and yellow jackets: from three-quarters (worker) to nearly an inch long (queen).

Bald-faced hornets build a large hanging paper nest up to 23 inches long to house a colony of several hundred individuals (400-700). It is distinguished from paper wasp nests by its “scalloped” exterior appearance. They are aggressive in nest-defense and sting repeatedly to drive an intruder away.

Bumble bees

Bumbles share with honey bees all the typical bee characteristics, including corbculae on their hind legs to carry pollen, but they are characteristically MORE fuzzy all over their stubby, rounded bodies than are honey bees.

Coloration varies from typical combinations of black and bright yellow of a number of species, to amber shades, reds, browns, some with gray or white patches. They can be small or large, from one quarter to one inch long.

Bumble bees are not aggressive; they rarely, rarely sting.  They share with honeybees a similar social structure of queen, workers, and drones, but the family group—the colony—is much smaller, consisting of 20 up to 400 in a nest, depending on the species.

Their nests are shallow bowl-shaped structures in abandoned animal burrows or other cavities in the ground, such as under stones or a wall, or under ground litter of leaves, twigs and branches (as in the example, right, with its twiggy covering removed). In our temperate zone, only the new queens will overwinter; the colonies do not survive the full year.

Take-aways  

Now you can distinguish a honey bee from a wasp, a hornet, and a bumble bee. Here are some of the important take-away facts to remember:

Honey bees swarm, wasps do not.   

Wasps often have underground nests; honey bees never do.

When you go walking outdoors, watch where you step!

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