6 Honey Bee And Wasp Differences (And How To Identify Them)

close up of Bombus cryptarum, also know as the cryptic bumblebee

A majority of the general public often fear honey bees and wasps. Most often, this is because it is hard to tell the difference between them when you do not have the proper knowledge. However, both play a very important role in the ecosystem. 

You can tell the difference between a honey bee and a wasp by their color, shape, nesting habits, and jobs. Honey bees have a fuzzy, furry body with a golden brown tint, while wasps have a long, slender body with a hard black and yellow outer layer. Wasps are much more aggressive than honey bees.

Read on to learn more about these key differences and how to keep yourself safe when encountering both species.

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What’s The Buzz On Bees And Wasps?

While most people believe bees are less harmful than wasps, if they do not know the difference, it can be daunting when faced with one of them.

I encourage you after reading this article to take a deep breath and to study the insect you are looking at next time. If you are unsure whether it is a wasp or a bee, note your reactions based on what you observe.

Honey bees and wasps are viewed very differently. Bees are one of the most studied insects in the world. Their importance to the environment gives them more recognition and documentation.

Scientists are more concerned about controlling disease in honey bees right now than they are in viewing them as pests. The same cannot be said for wasps.  

The History Behind Honey Bees And Wasps

Let’s start at the very beginning. Where do honey bees and wasps even come from originally?

Well, neither are native to North America, but they were both brought here. According to Michigan State and the USGS, honey bees (or Apis mellifera, if you call them by their real names) are from Europe and wasps are native to Europe and China.

Honey bees made their way over to the United States in the 17th Century from Europe, but the first wasp was found much later, around 1981 in Massachusetts. Both are invasive to the United States, but now play an important role in our ecosystem.

You can learn more about the bees of North America in this fantastic book, The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees. It showcases approximately 4,000 species of bees, with pictures and tips on how to identify them!

While wasps do not have a lineage, bees who have been around for longer do. They have four distinct lines which are A, C, M, and O. A lineage comes from Africa, C lineage from southwest Europe, M for Northern and Western Europe and O is from the Middle East.

What Physical Differences Do Honey Bees And Wasps Have?

Gray paper wasp nest in corner of triangular roof against siding.

This is probably the easiest difference for the average Joe to see during the moment to understand which insect they are dealing with. Renfrewshire gives some great information on the physical differences between a honey bee and a wasp. A lot of honey bees get mistaken for wasps in the spring because their shapes are so similar.

While their shapes are similar, the wasp is much more smooth and sleek than the honey bee. The honey bee has a fuzzy or furry-looking body and is usually rounder than a wasp. Honey bees are a light brown color, with difficult-to-see striping on their underside, whereas a wasp has distinctive yellow and black striping on its body.

The University of Missouri teaches us both the honey bee and the wasp are .5 inches long in adult capacity. Also, some bees do not even have stingers to look for! The only bees that have stingers and can sting you are females and this is because they developed from the structures they have to lay eggs.

The Different Job Honey Bees And Wasps Perform

A honey bee’s primary job is to pollinate flowers while a wasp’s is to keep the bug population at bay. Honey bees will only sting you in defense of their hive whereas wasps will sting you because they are just more aggressive.  

The University of Michigan says honey bees collect nectar, make honey, and are one of the most important insects in our ecosystem. Honey bees pollinate ¾ of all flowering plants and if they did not, these plants would not flourish, and neither would life on earth.  

For instance, the demand for almonds is so high, they have to use domesticated bees to pollinate them and it is worth more than $14 million.

Additionally, only honey bees make honey and most species of wasps don’t make honey.

What Are The Differences Between Honey Bee Hives And Wasp Nests?

Both honey bee and wasp hives have the most failures for the same two reasons. Either birds destroy their nest, or there are too many orphans from other hives to provide enough resources for everyone.

When looking at the site of the nest, see if there is one entrance or multiple. If there is only one entrance, it is probably a bee’s nest, but if there are multiple, it is probably a wasp’s nest.  

A honey bee hive is usually located in the hollow of a tree and they range anywhere between 30 to 60 liters in size. The entrances are typically about 25-30 centimeters. They line the walls of their hives with a honeycomb with small passages between them so the honey bees can get through.

Honey bees can produce up to 40 pounds of pollen and 265 pounds of nectar in one year living in their nests. They increase crop value by almost 15 billion dollars each year, according to the USGS.  

However, bees make their hives in walls of homes, attics, and on fences. So it is important to keep your eye out for potential risk factors.

Wasps have different wasp placement habits than honey bees. Wasps can have either exposed nests or underground nests. 

The University of Minnesota explains wasps can have exposed nests, usually found hanging from tree limbs or overhangs, or they can have underground nests. These nests are tricky because you usually cannot see them.

A wasp’s nest is also different in appearance if you can see it. Wasp’s nests are usually honeycomb in multiple layers surrounded by a grayish-looking paper shell. Even when it is underground, they still use the paper shell to surround the honeycomb.

Wasps that go from small nests to large nests can be much more aggressive and invasive after transitioning. The bigger the nest they live in, the more aggressive they are.

Colony Differences Between Honey Bees and Wasps

Honey bees and wasps are both very social insects who live in colonies. Both live in a complex social structure where there are rules and jobs for each member of the colony. However, the way they structure their colonies is not the same.

Living in these structures means bees are complex creatures capable of understanding a social structure. It is amazing the deeper you dive into it!

Honey Bee Colonies

According to MidAtlantic Apiculture Research, there are 3 different kinds of honey bees within a colony. There are worker bees, drone bees, and a queen bee. Each one has a different job to ensure the colony runs smoothly because honey bees cannot survive without one another.

There are several thousand worker bees in a colony and their job is basically to do all the building and feeding for the hive. They collect food, make the nests, and take care of brood rearing. Worker bees are adult female bees, and their tasks are assigned according to their age.

Worker bees are the only bees with stingers, pollen baskets, and scent glands. They have the fewest members in a colony but do the most labor. These bees usually only live about 6 weeks.

The drone bees are male bees whose only job is to mate with the queen and to fertilize her eggs. A drone bee’s head is bigger than all other bees. There are several hundred of these bees, but when the weather gets cold, they are forced out of the colony and often starve or freeze to death.

There is only one queen bee, and she is a sexually mature bee. The queen mates with the drone bees and lays both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. During peak mating season in the spring, she can lay about 1,500 a day.

A queen looks different from other bees. Her body is longer than the other bees, but her wings are not. She lives for about 2-5 years. Once the queen produces eggs and more workers, the colony runs smoothly. 

The queen gives off pheromones in a hive that sets the tone for the hive and keeps the bees together, working as one.

Wasp Colonies

Wasp

A wasp, on the other hand, does not have as great of a social structure as a bee. According to North Carolina State University, wasps decide their social structure based on who is the most aggressive. Most of their structure just comes from aggressive incidents between the wasps in the colony.

There are 3 types of wasps in the structure based on this. They are the queen, drone, and worker.

A queen is an adult honey bee whose at sexual maturity, and if a queen dies, they have a harder time finding a new queen. A wasp queen must maintain dominance if she wants to keep her position or another bee will take it.  

Drone wasps are adult males. This wasp is usually a product of an unfertilized egg by the queen and their primary job is to mate with the queen.

A worker bee in any female wasp without a mate. These wasps can all become queen if the reigning queen lets her guard down.

While they have similar structures inside of their colonies, honey bee structure is much more important to the life of each individual bee. Working together makes a big difference, whereas, in a wasp’s colony, it is important to have structure, but fighting gets you further.

If you are finding these bee and wasp colonies in your home or near areas like your car, take a look at our article: Don’t Get Stung! How to Keep Bees Away From Your Car for Good.

Removal Differences Between Honey Bees And Wasps

As stated before, while bees only really sting to protect their hives and their honeycomb, a wasp will sting more out of aggression and because they are meant to control populations.  

When you are trying to remove these bees or wasps from your home, it is important to consult professionals to avoid the risk of injury or damage to our property/structures/family/etc.

Especially if you are allergic to bees or wasps (although, if you are allergic to one, you are probably allergic to both), I encourage you to call a professional for help.

Your health and safety are so important, so why not leave it to the professionals? This is usually the safest and quickest outcome for all parties involved-the bees, wasps and humans included.  

For honey bee removal, you could call a beekeeper who can safely and securely remove the bees from your property and put them in a new hive to produce honey. Bees are an important part of our ecosystem, so we should try to preserve them at all costs.  

To deter bees naturally, you can use scents they dislike. We have a wonderful list here: Use These 10 Essential Oils To Keep Bees Away (Humanely).

If you are looking to remove wasps, if you can, wait until winter because their hives rarely survive through the winter. However, if you cannot wait that long and you need to remove them from your property, you should most definitely call any pest control agency to help you.

You can also use sprays for hanging and exposed nests and powdered products for ground wasps. However, if you have wasps in your home DO NOT use spray or regular powdered product, please make sure you are using an indoor safe product. Also, if they are indoors, make sure you put the indoor safe product in the opening to their nest.

A fantastic example of a wasp-killing spray is Spectracide 65865 HG-65865 Wasp & Hornet Killer Aerosol. It claims to spray up to 27 feet away and says you can remove the nest 24 hours after treatment.

When dealing with wasps, you want to make sure you do as much at night as possible. Wasps move less at night when the temperatures drop and are much easier to work with. If doing this by yourself, make sure you have someone experienced with you and read all the instructions before beginning.  

Similar to bees, wasps have a strong sense of smell. To learn more about how to use it against them, check out 8 Scents That Wasps Hate (And How To Use Them)!

That’s A Wrap!

Overall, having a better understanding of honey bees and wasps can help you react accordingly to encountering one. Quick movements are a big no for either species, so try to take things slow.

When dealing with honey bees or wasps, make sure you are moving slowly and calmly with a quiet demeanor. Do not yell or wave your hands around, just walk away. Both insects will more than likely leave you alone if you leave them alone.

Stay out of their space, and they will often stay away from yours.

If your kids or someone you know has never been stung and does not know if they are allergic, make sure they stay away from established hives to reduce the chance of an allergic reaction. Keeping everyone safe is always a top priority.  

In conclusion, while most people fear honey bees and wasps, it is important to know the differences between them, so you can properly handle tense situations in the future. Knowing their aggression aspect, understanding their nesting habits, and realizing their threat is your first step to being successful.  

References:

Erin E. Wilson, Lynne M. Mullen, David A. Holway. Life history plasticity magnifies the ecological effects of a social wasp invasion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Aug 2009, 106 (31) 12809-12813; DOI:10.1073/pnas.0902979106

Joan E. Strassmann, David C. Queller, Colin R. Hughes. Predation and the Evolution of Sociality in the Paper Wasp Polistes Bellicosus.  Ecology.  1981.  1225-1233.

L. Bailey. Honey bee pathology. Annual Review of Entomology.  1968.  191-212.

Nawrocka, A., Kandemir, İ., Fuchs, S. et al. Computer software for identification of honey bee subspecies and evolutionary lineages. Apidologie 49, 172–184 (2018).

Seeley, T.D., Morse, R.A. The nest of the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.). Ins. Soc 23, 495–512 (1976).

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