Bees, hornets, and wasps are some of the most feared insects of all. But they are also some of the most important! Hearing that ominous buzz and seeing a flash of yellow and black is often enough to send most of us running in the opposite direction.
Knowing how to identify each can help us to understand their behaviours and, more importantly, avoid those dreaded stings. This guide will give you all the information you need to confidently distinguish between bees, wasps, and hornets this summer!
What are bees?
Bees are a diverse group of small flying insects belonging to the Apoidea superfamily, which also includes wasps. There are around 20,000 different species of bee, spread across several families, and all of them are instrumental in the process of pollination.
Without bees to pollinate plants, most of the planet’s natural ecosystems would collapse.
Bees are found on every continent except Antarctica and live in a range of diverse habitats, from woodlands to deserts, to urban metropolises. In fact, they can be found in any environment which also has flowering plants. Bee species are generally separated into two categories, social and solitary.
Social bees tend to live in hives made of wax, consisting of hundreds or even thousands of individuals. They like to build their hives in twigs, tree trunks, and other sheltered places. Solitary bees live alone and build burrows underground in crevices in brickwork.
Bees are more active in warmer weather, emerging from their nests in spring when flowers begin to bloom, although some species of bees are active through the winter months too.
Bees eat nectar and pollen which they collect from flowers. As they move from flower to flower collecting food, pollen sticks to their hairy legs and bodies, which is then transported to the next flower they visit, fertilising the plant and allowing it to reproduce.
This process is known as pollination and is essential to almost all forms of plant life on the planet. The mouthparts of different species of bees have evolved to be perfectly adapted to collecting pollen from their favoured species and shapes of flowers. Despite popular belief that all bees can make honey, it is only produced by a single bee species, the aptly name Honeybee.
How to identify a bee
Bees are incredibly diverse insects, and each of the 20,000 species of bees look slightly different from each other, so it can sometimes be tricky to positively identify them.
There are, however, a few shared characteristics to look out for. Most, but not all species of bee, have yellow, brown, or black coloured, fuzzy bodies, although some species have red or white markings, and others are all black.
The smallest species of bee measures only 2 millimetres in length, and the largest is almost two inches long.
Not all bees can sting! Some species of bee are stingless, and across the stinging species, it is only the females which possess a stinger. This is because the stinger is actually an ovipositor, which is used to lay eggs, although venom can also travel through it.
It is only Honeybees that die after stinging, because their ovipositors are deeply barbed, meaning that it becomes detached from the bee once it releases its venom, ripping out part of the bee’s abdomen as it detaches, killing the bee almost instantly. All other stinging bee species can sting repeatedly since their barbs are less severe.
Bees are not naturally aggressive, and will only sting when they feel that they or their hive is being threatened. They try to avoid human contact as much as possible.
Types of bees to look out for:
Honeybees are perhaps the best known of all bee species since they are responsible for producing precious honey that we often (mistakenly) associate with all other species of bee.
They are social bees, living in large groups made up of a Queen, female workers, and male drones. A single hive can house up to 50,000 honeybees! They have very furry bodies and legs to collect pollen and are usually a dark golden brown colour. Honeybees retreat to the hive during the cold seasons and are rarely seen in winter.
Bumblebees are a large genus of social bees who live in hives similar to honeybees, although their populations tend to be much smaller. Bumblebees are slightly bigger than honeybees, and they make a loud, low-humming noise as they fly, which is how they get their name.
They are slow flyers, and can often be found buzzing leisurely between flowers. Most bumblebees have a distinct stripe on their tail, which will be either red, white, or yellow, depending on their species.
Mason Bees are a species of solitary bee that like to build their nests in brickwork, hence their name. They are smaller than honeybees and have a more streamlined body shape which often leads to them being confused with wasps. Mason bees have a metallic appearance, generally without any distinct stripes, and often with much sparser hairs than other types of bees.
What are Wasps?
Wasps are closely related to bees. In fact, both bees and wasps probably evolved from the same prehistoric ancestor. Like bees, wasps belong to the Apocrita suborder of insects, and there are around 100,000 recognised wasp species around the world.
Wasp habitats are found on every continent on Earth, except Antarctica. Like bees, wasps are separated into social and solitary species, dependent on their social habits. Social wasps live in nests with a single egg-laying queen and make their homes by chewing woody materials into a paper mache-like pulp which they use to form hollow, spherical nests.
Solitary wasps live in tunnels or burrows in wood and soil. The great majority of wasp species are solitary, and are far more docile than social wasps, making them very unlikely to sting humans.
Many people mistakenly believe that wasps are not pollinators, and therefore are not beneficial insects. In fact, wasps have numerous ecological benefits, and many species of wasp are very efficient pollinators, although not as prolific as bees. They also play an important role in keeping other insect populations at bay, since they are excellent predators.
Wasp larvae are carnivorous, and adults hunt other insects such as beetles, bees, caterpillars, and spiders to feed their young. An adult wasps’ diet consists of anything sugary, this includes nectar, tree sap, rotting fruit, honey, and any other sweet foods.
It is this proclivity for sugar that has earned wasps something of a reputation for aggression, since they are attracted to the sugary food and drink that we consume, and will often bother humans in search of food.
Another reason that wasps are often seen as combative is that they often feed on fermenting fruit, which causes them to become drunkenly aggressive. This aggression can sometimes be directed toward humans.
How to identify a wasp
The best way to identify a wasp is to look at its body shape. Wasps have smooth, aerodynamic silhouettes which allow them to fly at great speeds when hunting down their prey.
They have long, bullet-shaped bodies with tightly nipped-in waists. Wasps can range in size from a microscopic one millimetre to the slightly daunting giant species which can reach up to two inches in length.
Most species of wasps have vivid yellow, well-defined stripes, but some species can be all black, and others can be red and black. Wasps often have shiny bodies with little hair, since they don’t rely on hairs to collect pollen as bees do. If they do have hair it’s usually fine and downy rather than fuzzy.
Female wasps have a stinger which they use to lay eggs, just like bees. They also use the stinger to catch and paralyse their live pray by injecting venom. This venom is also used to defend themselves or their nests when they feel threatened. Unlike honeybees, wasp stingers have a much more slender barb, which can be safely withdrawn from the victim without damaging the wasp, and means that they can sting repeatedly without dying.
Perhaps more worryingly, wasps are also able to mobilise other members of their community to attack when they feel threatened. They communicate by releasing pheromones which signal to other wasps that they are in danger, which will also begin to attack.
These pheromones are also released when a wasp dies, again encouraging other members of the hive to attack. Wasps have been known to pursue their victims over long distances when very agitated.
Types of wasps to look out for:
Yellow Jackets have streamlined, hairless bodies with a shiny appearance, and very tightly nipped-in waists. They build ground nests and live in very large colonies of up to 15,000 individuals. They are slightly smaller than other wasp species, usually measuring just under an inch in length, although despite their small size, they are known for being highly aggressive.
Common Wasps have the archetypal black and yellow striped bodies, which are covered in fine, downy hairs. They are fairly small, usually only reading around two centimetres in length, although they can display high levels of aggression when they feel threatened.
They are social wasps, and build their nests in a wide range of habitats, from brickwork to tree trunks.
The Red Banded Sand Wasp is a common if unique-looking wasp that is most commonly seen during June and July. They have long, very slender bodies measuring around two and a half centimetres in length. Red-banded wasps are mostly black, with a distinctive red stripe around their abdomen where it narrows. They are solitary wasps and live in underground burrows.
Bees Vs Wasps : Whats the difference?
The main biological difference between bees and wasps is their diet. Bees are entirely dependent on flowers for their food, whilst wasps take advantage of much more varied food sources. Wasps are both carnivores and predators, hunting and eating spiders or other insects.
Wasps tend to have more vivid, sharp yellow striped markings, whilst bees have softer oranges, browns, or dull yellow markings and much less defined stripes if any.
Bees are rounder and plumper than wasps, who have long slender bodies, and are tightly nipped in at the waist creating a more aerodynamic silhouette. If in doubt, check for the tightly nipped waistline, as this is a reliable indicator that the insect you are looking at is a wasp and not a bee.
Bees are hairy, whilst wasps tend to have smoother bodies with finer hairs. Not all species of bees are entirely covered in hair, some only have hairy legs. These hairs are what capture the pollen, an essential tool for pollination. Since wasps are not exclusively pollinators, they have less need for hair.
Bees are docile and will do their best to keep well away from humans. Wasps on the other hand, whilst not inherently more aggressive towards humans, are braver and will venture closer, especially when sugary or sweet foods are nearby.
What are Hornets?
Hornets are often thought of as being distinct from wasps, when in fact, they are just one genus of wasp. A simple way to remember the difference is that all hornets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets.
Hornets are generally the largest of all the social wasp species and measure around two inches in length. There are around 20 species of hornet, mostly living in tropical areas of Asia, but hornets can also be found in Europe and the Americas.
Hornets have gained something of a fearsome reputation since they tend to be more aggressive towards humans than other species of wasp. They also have much more potent stings which contain higher levels of toxins than standard wasp stings.
This has earned them a reputation as being quite a nuisance, particularly when they encroach on human habitats. In Germany, however, hornets are a protected species since they play an important role in pollination.
Because hornets are social wasps, they tend to live in above-ground hives made from wood pulp, similar to other social wasp species. Hornets are efficient predators and prefer to eat live prey rather than nectar or other sugary food sources.
How to identify a hornet
Hornets are usually brown with yellow stripes on their bodies, rather than black and yellow. They often have a reddish-brown or yellow head. They usually measure over an inch in length, much larger than other wasp species. Hornets are also chunkier than other wasps, and whilst they are still nipped in at the wait, the waistline is much less defined than other wasps.
Like bees and other wasps, hornets have a stinger and will use it to defend themselves or their nests when they feel threatened. As with other wasp species, hornets can sting repeatedly.
Hornets are infamous for their often highly painful venom, which contains more potent levels of toxic chemicals than the stings of other types of wasp, and their larger size means that they can deliver greater amounts of venom with each sting.
Types of hornets to look out for:
European Hornets are the largest species of hornet native to Europe. They have distinctive yellow and brown striped bodies and usually measure around three centimetres in length. Like all other hornet species, European hornets are social and will live in very large above-ground colonies. They are some of the most sophisticated and well-organised wasp species.
Asian Hornets originated in Asia but were introduced to Europe by accident twenty years ago. They are an invasive species and prey on native bees. They can be identified by their large, bulbous abdomens and deep orange and black markings. Asian hornets have the most toxic venom of all hornets.
Wasps vs Hornets : Whats the difference?
The best way to distinguish a hornet from other types of wasp is by size. Hornets are much more chunky than other types of wasp, with a less defined waistline.
Despite being larger and more fearsome-looking, hornets are thought to be less aggressive than other wasp species, although their venom is more potent, and is much more painful than the stings of other wasps.
Hornets are social wasps, so they tend to live in large colonies in nests, whilst most other species of wasp are solitary, preferring to live alone and burrow underground.
Which is most dangerous?
Bees pose very little threat to humans. They are mostly docile and try to avoid human contact as much as possible. Wasps are known to venture into contact with humans more often and can be more aggressive in their interactions. Hornets pose the most threat to humans, since their venom is most potent, although they are less aggressive than wasps.
How long do they live?
Bees can live anywhere from two weeks to six years, depending on the species. Wasps’ lifespans tend to be much shorter, usually only surviving for less than a month, although queens can live up to a year. Hornets have similar lifespans to other wasp species.
Do they make honey?
Neither wasps nor hornets make honey. In fact, most species of bees don’t make honey either. Only one species of bee, the Honeybee, is capable of producing honey.
Being confronted by any buzzing, black and yellow insect can be frightening. But these encounters needn’t necessarily spell danger. The most important thing to remember is that neither bees, wasps, nor hornets will attack unless they feel threatened. In fact, all three of these fascinating and diverse insects are beneficial for local wildlife.
We should try not to disturb them as much as possible, allowing them to continue with their un-bee-lievably important work helping to pollinate native plants and supporting a thriving, balanced ecosystem!