Don’t Blame the Friendly Bee! The Difference Between Bees and Wasps

One Sunday morning, this past spring, I was walking through the local park with my wife and son. It was still early, and we both were enjoying the peaceful quiet. Suddenly, we heard, “Bee, ahhh!”

the terror

A small family that was having a picnic breakfast interrupted the serene setting with their panicked screams. On top of that, they were scattering in all directions as fast as they could, frantically waving their arms above their heads. For a moment, I felt like I was watching a sociology documentary about an ancient dance of a small African tribe. Moving away from my understandably alarmed wife and son, I cautiously inched toward the site of the small family’s terror. I have a deep interest in bees, and was hoping to identify the specific species that had made its home in our local park. I saw a flash of yellow and black cross my path. The insect landed on a nearby tree, strange behavior for a bee, I thought. A quick glance, revealed my initial suspicions true. It wasn’t a bee that was causing such terror, it was a wasp—a yellow jacket, which is a type of ground nesting wasp.
Right now, you are probably thinking about a similar experience you have seen or had that mirrors my family’s stroll through the park. It’s a far too common scene each spring and summer. Bees are far too often stigmatized as a an annoying, picnic ruining, sting-crazy pest. The truth is, this is usually an unfair categorization. Bees are almost always far more passive and friendly than they are given credit for. The culprit of springtime terror is usually a wasp or hornet, which are entirely different species from bees.

knowing your bees can help you prevent being stung

Getting to know the differences between a wasp, a hornet, and a bee can help you identify whether a flying insect might be a threat. First, wasps and hornets are above-ground nesting insects. They live are both social insects which live in hives. They are aggressive insects that can deliver multiple stings. Though most types of wasps and hornets are not scavengers and thus not usually concerned with your picnic, the yellow jacket survives on a diet of insects and sugars which often attracts the species to garbage cans and picnics.

Yellow jackets are extremely aggressive, can sting multiple times, and have the same colors as bees

A yellow jacket has the same color as a bee—black and yellow. Thus, that harassing yellow jacket often gets mislabeled as a bee. So, how can you tell the difference? The two most prevalent types of bees found in local parks during the spring time are the bumblebee and the honeybee. The bumblebee and honeybee can be distinguished from the wasp and hornet by their fuzzy and plump bodies. Wasps and hornets are skinny and shiny with no noticeable hairs. Wasps and hornets, especially the yellow jacket, are carnivores that eat other insects. Bees eat pollen and nectar and are beneficial as pollinators.
The bee is not concerned with your picnic; it’s doing its own thing. Wasps and hornets on the other hand are what send people running on those nice spring and summer days. Bees are important pollinators in our ecosystem and deserve to be seen as such. So, the next time someone yells, “bee!” and runs, run with them, but remind them that it’s not the bee that ruined your picnic.


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