Hornets, Bees and Wasps: Which Is Which?

Updated on February 20, 2018
Casey White profile image

Dorothy McKenney is a former newspaper reporter-turned researcher. Her husband, Mike, is a professional landscape/nature photographer.

A Confusing Bald-Faced Hornet

A bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata).  As confusing as it is because of the name, this "hornet" is actually a yellowjacket.  It has  ivory-white markings on the face, thorax, legs and abdomen.
A bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata). As confusing as it is because of the name, this "hornet" is actually a yellowjacket. It has ivory-white markings on the face, thorax, legs and abdomen. | Source

Confusing, Without a Doubt

It's really not surprising that we are confused about wasps, hornets, and bees. After all, referencing the photo above, the bald-faced hornet is actually a yellowjacket, which makes it a wasp. However, they are both considered beneficial insects because they eat the not-so-beneficial insects.

To confuse us even further, hylaeus bees are very often confused with wasps. These bees are a small, black and yellow/white wasp-like species that doesn't have a pollen-carrying apparatus (called a scopa) like other bees. In most bees, the scopa is simply a particularly dense mass of elongated hairs (sort of bristle-like) on the hind leg. Not so, however in a hylaeus bee, which carries pollen in its craw, then regurgitates it.

Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist/physician/zoologist, formalized the modern system of naming organisms back in the 18th Century, creating the world of taxonomy, so I assume we can lay the blame, or give the credit to him for the words that we can't possibly pronounce.

So, if something you believe to either be a wasp, a hornet or a bee lands on you (good news is that it's highly unlikely), we hope reading this article will remove at least some of the confusion so that you will learn whether its sting will be bad, really bad or just plain excruciating.

This is a hive full of bald-faced hornets. Hopefully, photos are only made by folks with really long lenses on their cameras, like Larry Jernigan of Heber Springs, Arkansas, one of our favorite wildlife/nature photographers.
This is a hive full of bald-faced hornets. Hopefully, photos are only made by folks with really long lenses on their cameras, like Larry Jernigan of Heber Springs, Arkansas, one of our favorite wildlife/nature photographers. | Source

Different Stings Are Treated Differently

The wounds inflicted by wasps or bees need to be treated differently, so it's important to know the difference between the two. A bee may sting you if provoked, but a wasp is much more aggressive. Luckily, most wasps hibernate during the winter.

An Orange Potter Wasp, a Bumblebee and an Oriental Hornet

This is an orange potter wasp (Eumenes latreilli).  Wasps have delicate legs, narrow waists and smooth bodies and their sting can cause lots of pain and irritation. And, there's no limit to the number of times they can sting; their stinger stays put.
This is an orange potter wasp (Eumenes latreilli). Wasps have delicate legs, narrow waists and smooth bodies and their sting can cause lots of pain and irritation. And, there's no limit to the number of times they can sting; their stinger stays put. | Source
A bumblebee perched upon a yellow flower.  Bees, in contrast to wasps, have larger, fuzzy-looking bodies and fatter legs.  Most bees won't sting unless they are provoked, so don't disturb a bumblebee nest; it makes them angry.
A bumblebee perched upon a yellow flower. Bees, in contrast to wasps, have larger, fuzzy-looking bodies and fatter legs. Most bees won't sting unless they are provoked, so don't disturb a bumblebee nest; it makes them angry. | Source
An oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis ) -  found in Southwest Asia, Northeast Africa, the island of Madagascar, Israel and parts of Southern Europe.  This guy's sting is extremely painful and some people are allergic to the sting.
An oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis ) - found in Southwest Asia, Northeast Africa, the island of Madagascar, Israel and parts of Southern Europe. This guy's sting is extremely painful and some people are allergic to the sting. | Source

Honey Bee vs Yellowjacket

Honey bees have more fur than wasps. They have small legs that tuck in, whereas wasps have long, visible legs. Honey bees love flowers but the yellowjacket wants to eat your picnic food. Still, both are important pollinators.

There Are 20,000 Known Species of Bees

I guess you know already that there's no way we can, or should, list all of the known species of bees (whew, I'm tired just thinking about it), but these are descriptions of some of the more common ones:

  • Bumblebees - larger than honeybees and have a black body covered with dense yellow and black hair.
  • Cuckoo Bees - these bees are nearly hairless, but they have brightly-colored exoskeletons, usually in yellow, red, black, white, and orange. Sometimes, they are covered with a very fine fuzz in red, white, blue and black.
  • Carpenter bees - they often have a black body with yellow and black dense hairs on their head and thorax, along with a bald abdomen
  • Mason bees - they are small, but extremely fast, metallic-colored bees (blue, dull green and black).
  • Leafcutter bees - they are black, with white hairs covering the thorax and the bottom of the abdomen; many species have large heads with huge jaws.
  • Long-horned bees - these are hairy bees and in most species, the face is black. They have light brown and black or white (possibly both) colored hair covering the head and thorax, and usually, have hair patterns on the abdomen.
  • Blueberry bees (Habropoda laboriosa) - they look and sound like bumblebees, but are smaller and faster; they forage mainly on blueberry plants.
  • Squash bees - they nest and mate in squash plants. The head and thorax range in color from black (or tan) to orange and the thorax is black and hairy and has banded abdomen stripes that are black, white or tan.
  • Sweat bees - they are attracted to human perspiration and their range of colors go from black to metallic blues and greens with sometimes copper and blue overtones. Some sweat bees have stripes or bands on their abdomens.

Wasps Cause Bees to Get a Bad Reputation

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This is the orange spider wasp (Cryptocheilus bicolor) - found in Australia.  It has orange wings and legs and a broad orange band around its abdomen.  These wasps are large The parasitic fig wasp (Apocryta westwoodi grandi) uses a zinc-hardened and enriched  ovipositor to penetrate tough, unripe figs.
This is the orange spider wasp (Cryptocheilus bicolor) - found in Australia.  It has orange wings and legs and a broad orange band around its abdomen.  These wasps are large
This is the orange spider wasp (Cryptocheilus bicolor) - found in Australia. It has orange wings and legs and a broad orange band around its abdomen. These wasps are large | Source
The parasitic fig wasp (Apocryta westwoodi grandi) uses a zinc-hardened and enriched  ovipositor to penetrate tough, unripe figs.
The parasitic fig wasp (Apocryta westwoodi grandi) uses a zinc-hardened and enriched ovipositor to penetrate tough, unripe figs. | Source

The Honey Bee's Sting is Fatal (for the Bee)

A honey bee is a golden brown color with black abdominal stripes, and it is a fragile, gentle creature that is attracted to flowers. You would have to provoke it a lot for it to sting you. When it does, however, it is unable to pull the barbed stinger back so the stinger is left behind, along with part of the bee's abdomen, digestive tract, muscles, and nerves. Honey bees are the only bee that can only sting once, then die, so leave them alone, as they are important pollinators of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

Honey bees have been disappearing some because of colony collapse disorder, a "phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen," according to the government's EPA website. The hives are unable to sustain themselves without worker bees and eventually die.

The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.

— Jacques Yves Cousteau

A Honey Bee Just Doing Its Thing

Honey bees are important pollinators of fruits, vegetables and flowers and it won't sting you unless provoked, so please don't provoke it.  These bees can only sting one time, then die, and our environment can't afford to lose them.
Honey bees are important pollinators of fruits, vegetables and flowers and it won't sting you unless provoked, so please don't provoke it. These bees can only sting one time, then die, and our environment can't afford to lose them.

There Are 30,000 Known Species of Wasps

Listed below are descriptions of only a few of them.

  • Cicada killer wasps are hairy with reddish and black areas on the thorax, and black to reddish brown markings with light yellow stripes on the abdomen. Their wings are brown. These wasps prey upon cicadas and aren't interested in humans unless highly provoked, but leave them alone anyway. They are big and scary looking.
  • Paper wasps are small and only grow to about three-quarters of an inch long. They are black, brown, or reddish in color with yellow markings. They construct their nest of a paper-like material and will defend it if attacked, so stay away from their nest.
  • Spider wasps are so named because they hunt down spiders to feed their young. Most of them are black, metallic blue, or reddish and can grow up to two inches long. The spider wasp's wings range from a clear to smoky-gray color or are bright red-orange. One way to distinguish them from other wasps is by their unbelievably long hind legs. They won't sting you unless provoked, but they can have a very painful sting.
  • Yellowjackets build their nest on the ground. They can be the size of or even a little larger than a honey bee and have bright yellow and black bands around their bodies. Unfortunately, they can sting you multiple times, piercing your skin with its stinger and injecting a poisonous venom that causes instant pain. Stay away from these guys!

As you can see, this yellowjacket has already stung this person and its stinger is still intact.  They are capable of stinking many times, unlike the honey bee, which dies after the first (and only time) it stings.
As you can see, this yellowjacket has already stung this person and its stinger is still intact. They are capable of stinking many times, unlike the honey bee, which dies after the first (and only time) it stings.
This is a great chart for noting the differences between bees, hornets and wasps.
This is a great chart for noting the differences between bees, hornets and wasps. | Source

Luckily, There Are Only Approximately 20 Known Species of Hornets

Despite being larger than most wasps, most hornet species (but not all) are less aggressive than the common yellow jacket wasps. They eat leaves and tree sap but are also skilled predators, feeding on flies, bees, and other insects. According to NationalGeographic.com, most hornets live in tropical Asia but are also found in Europe, Africa, and North America, where the European hornet was introduced by humans.

The wing structure of the hornet, in relation to its weight, is not suitable for flight, but he does not know this and flies anyway.

— Albert Einstein

A Black Shield Wasp Is a Hornet: Confused Yet?

The Black Shield Wasp (which is actually a species of hornet) is the  pollinator of an orchid, Dendrobium sinense, found only on the Chinese island of Hainan.
The Black Shield Wasp (which is actually a species of hornet) is the pollinator of an orchid, Dendrobium sinense, found only on the Chinese island of Hainan.

References

  1. Tom Oder (2017). How to Identify Different Types of Bees - And Wasps and Hornets and Yellow Jackets and Other Flying Insects. https://www.mnn.com. Retrieved on 2/17/2018
  2. http://www.everythingabout.net/articles/biology/animals/arthropods/insects/wasps/paper_wasp. Retrieved 02/19/2018
  3. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/group/hornets. Retrieved 02/19/2018
  4. https://www.alansfactoryoutlet.com/bees-hornets-and-wasps-of-the-world. Retrieved 02/19/2018
  5. https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/423652-Vespa-bicolor. Retrieved 02/19/2018

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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      • Casey White profile image
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        Mike and Dorothy McKenney 8 weeks ago from United States

        Thanks, Cal. I appreciate you reading it.

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        CrabbyCal 8 weeks ago

        Great article, informative, like the pics.

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        Gato12 8 weeks ago

        Thanks

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