PS – Bees or Wasps…in Flight

All those features described in the previous article on distinguishing bees and wasps (please see “Bees or Wasps | How to Tell Them Apart”) are well and good when the insect sits relatively still long enough for you get a good look or to snap a photo, or when you are gazing at a papery nest and pondering the nature of its occupants.

However, a flying wasp often looks more like this:

Or maybe just a TOTAL bluurrrrrrrrrr….

It is true that when a bee or wasp is flying (and here, we are most concerned about yellow jacket wasps that are most common in the late summer/early fall season and do not hesitate to sting), specific features are less distinctive. 

You can’t really see the wings because they’re beating so fast.  You also can’t really note the fuzziness factor as the insect zooms around… nor even the “wasp waist,” because in flight, a wasp tightens up to a more aerodynamic posture, compressing the thorax and abdomen junction, so the body appears a lot more bee-like.

This observation may be a bit subjective, but in my experience, a yellow-jacket looks a bit “erratic,” like a housefly, always zipping sharply back and forth, side to side, up and down, zig to zag. Why? Partly because it is “scanning” in flight to build up a visual image of something in its view, and to gather other sensory information, as well.

If YOU are the “something” that a wasp is checking out as it is buzzing around your face, it is detecting how big you are, what your shape may be, whether you offer food or a threat.

Such close attention can be a bit unnerving…but not necessarily dangerous. When a yellow jacket intends to sting, it flies straight at you.          

When a honey bee is out and about, it makes a “bee line” to a known destination, or if it is is exploring, it may pause at several locations along the way.  Its flight is typically one of curves, whether large or small ones as it navigates, rather than the sharp changes of direction seen in wasp flight. Thus the bee’s flight appears somehow more calm and gentle than that of the wasp.

However, a bee in defense of a hive that is under attack (i.e., one that is roughly disturbed), or if the individual you encounter happens to be a “robber bee,” you may see more aggressive behavior, even rarely some face-buzzing somewhat similar to that of a wasp… annoying, but not as dangerous.

How Do Bees Fly?

Bees beat their wings at a rate of 250 times per second, but not just straight “up and down.”

Understanding bee wings is key to figuring out how bees can fly. Their wings are not rigid, but twist and rotate during flight. Bee wings make short, quick sweeping motions front and back, front and back. This motion creates enough lift to make it possible for bees to fly.

“Some other insects have a longer motion from front to back and a slower wing beat. The slower beat makes other insects more efficient, meaning they can get more lift with less work.

So why might bees use an inefficient way of flying? It lets them carry heavy loads [nectar, pollen, water, resin] back to the nest.”  (Italicized text and diagram from

How Do Wasps Fly?

The wasp, like many other insects, stays aloft and hovers by using a wing maneuver called ”clap and fling,” clapping its wings together and flinging them open quickly. The yellow jacket’s rate of wing-movement is at the slow end of the spectrum for wasps, about 120 beats per second (others, such as the tiny parasitoid wasp, Encarsia formosa— which is only 1/60th of an inch long—beats its little wings at 400 times per second).

Dr. Tony Maxworthy of the University of Southern California (USC) studied the aerodynamics of wasp flight, and noted that like many other insects, a wasp makes extremely abrupt turns in flight, changing its direction within a distance of 1 body length—we might say, “it turns on a dime.”

How Fast Are They?

The meandering speed for honey bees and wasps is similar, 6 or 7 mph…but on the “straight-away,” a honey bee flies at 15 mph on the way out to forage, and closer to 12 mph en route back to the hive, fully laden. Nonetheless, these honey bee foragers can attain a speed of 20 mph at maximum effort.  Wasps, in contrast, can clock up to 30 mph under perfect conditions and if sufficiently annoyed.

Therefore…….. if you come upon some very agitated winged, flying creatures and wonder whether they’re bees or not, maybe just back away and don’t worry so much about the identification…. unless you think you could outrun an angry wasp. At 30 mph?? No Way!!

Recent Posts