Characteristics of common wasps and bees

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While observers can easily confuse common wasps and bees at a distance or without close observation, there are many different characteristics of large bees and wasps that can be used to identify them.


  Bees (Family: Apidae) Wasps (Family: Vespidae)
Name Western honey bee Bumblebee Paper wasp Yellowjacket Bald-faced hornet European hornet Asian giant hornet
Colors Amber to brown translucent alternating with black stripes.[a] Exact pattern and colouration varies depending on strain/breed. Yellow with black stripes, sometimes with olive, brown, orange-brown, red,[1] white, or as in Bombus pratorum, dark.[2] Dusty yellow to dark brown or black Black and opaque bright yellow stripes Black and ivory white markings Black and dark body with yellow[b] Black and gold body with orange
Coat Furry (short hair) Furry (long hair) Little or no hair Some hair
Size 1.3 cm (0.51 in) 2.5 cm (0.98 in) or more 1.9 to 2.5 cm (0.75 to 0.98 in) 1.3 cm (0.51 in) Up to 3.0 cm (1.2 in) Up to 3.5 cm (1.4 in) Up to 4.0 cm (1.6 in)
Legs Not generally visible while flying[c] Two thin long legs are visible hanging down during flight. There are no pollen baskets. Legs not generally visible in flight. There are no pollen baskets.
Behavior Gentle[d] Gentle Not aggressive Aggressive Extremely aggressive[3][4][5]
Food Pollen and nectar from flowers Other insects Other insects, overripe fruit, sugary drinks, human food and food waste, meat[e] Other insects.
Sting Barbed. Kills bee;[f] continues pumping. Smooth; can repeat. Retracts.
Sting Pain[6] 2 2 1.5–3 depending on species 2 (Vespula pensylvanica) 2 2.x[g][citation needed] 4.0+[7][failed verification]
Lights Not attracted to lights at night unless nest is disturbed, or light is placed near hive, or bee is sick. Attracted to lights at night[8][9]
Lives in Large colonies of flat, wax-based honeycomb hanging vertically. Small cavities in the soil or sometime above ground in dark cavities. Commonly uses small rodent nests, may use bird cavity nests. Small umbrella-shaped papery combs hanging horizontally in protected spaces such as attics, eaves or soil cavities. Large paper nest, upside down pear shaped, hanging from branches and eaves; also barns and attics. Some yellowjacket species nest in the ground. Very large paper nest in hollow trees, sheltered positions. Has a brown, protective layer when the nest is in an unsheltered position. Also found in barns, attics, hollow walls and abandoned bee hives.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Though western honeybees mostly have distinguishable alternating stripes, some are mostly black.
  2. ^ Differing color forms exist geographically.
  3. ^ Light-colored pollen on the pollen baskets on a honeybee's rear legs can be visible.
  4. ^ Domesticated bees have been selected over time for gentleness. There are several races of domesticated honey bees with varying characteristics of honey production, disease resistance and gentleness.
  5. ^ Yellowjackets are carnivorous during the brood rearing part of the season. They feed insects to their brood, and obtain the sugar for their flight-muscle energy mostly from secretions of the brood. During this time they can be attracted to traps baited with meat or fish. Near the end of summer, when brood rearing ceases and this sugar source is no longer available, yellow jackets become frantic for sugar, and can be baited with sugar-based baits. They are also much more likely to visit fall flowers for nectar than they are earlier in the season.
  6. ^ The barbed stinger evolved as a colony defense against invertebrates; the invariable outcome of stinging a mammal or bird is that the stinger becomes lodged in the victim's skin and tears free from the honey bee's body, leading to her death within minutes. As such, there is rarely any evolutionary advantage for a bee to sting a mammal to defend itself as an individual; honey bees will generally only sting when the hive is directly threatened and honey bees found in the field or on a flower will rarely sting.
  7. ^ Mainly European hornet. Other species may be more aggressive and have a more toxic sting.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Bumble Bees". Natural History Museum.
  2. ^ Benton, Ted (2006). "Chapter 9: The British Species". Bumblebees. London, UK: HarperCollins Publishers. pp. 338–342. ISBN 0007174519
  3. ^ Ross, Piper (2007). Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals. pp. 9–11. ISBN 978-0-313-33922-6.
  4. ^ "National Geographic". Archived from the original on 2013-10-04.
  5. ^ Park, Madison; Zhang, Dayu; Landau, Elizabeth (4 October 2013). "Deadly giant hornets kill 42 people in China". CNN.
  6. ^ Unless otherwise noted, sting pains are from The sting of the Wild by Justin O. Schmidt. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2006, pp.226-229
  7. ^ "Vespa mandarinia Smith, 1852".
  8. ^ "Non-Honey Bee Stinging Insects in North Carolina". NC State Extension Publications. NC State University. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  9. ^ Lawrence, Neil. "Pest Control Advice - Wasps". Oxford City Council. Retrieved 3 September 2018.

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