Is it a Bee?

Written by Megan Wannarka


Most beekeepers have gotten a call about a possible swarm of honey bees (free bees!) only to find and most likely for them to be a wasp nest instead. In general, people are likely to say bee when they mean wasp but do not know the difference. Here I will show you the differences to hope you learn the difference and catch yourself correcting the use of bee when really it is a wasp. 


It is understandable why people would get these two insects confused. They both have three body parts and are from the same family, Hymenoptera (meaning it has three body parts and wings that hook together-ants are also part of this family of insects).  As you can see in Figure 1, Honeybees are on the left, and wasps are on the right, respectively. A few differences they do have. Honeybees are a little bigger than a wasp, being 15mm versus yellowjackets 12mm. The wasps have a narrow waist that is noticeable. 

Figure 1 Honey bee (Apis mellifera) and  Southern Yellow Jacket (Vespula squamosa) respectively via (Droege & USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program, 2010)


Commonly you see wasps and not bees for one main reason-you are not a flower. Honeybees and native bees are looking for food from flowers, nectar, pollen, and propolis. In contrast, wasps are looking for protein, hence why they are bothering you and your picnic!


The New York Times (Giaimo, 2020) recently wrote about yellowjackets, otherwise known as wasps (Apocrita sp), and brings up some good points. Wasps are looking for meat or fruit to feast from, not flowers, and typically don’t want anything to do with you unless you get between you and their food or young.


There might be a chance you are next to a wasp nest.  Here again the nests of honeybees and wasps are noticeably different. Native bees are also quite different depending on the location.


Figure 2 Honeybee (Apis mellifera) nest (via Temuri Balakhashvili) and paper wasp nest (Polistes dominula), and in the corner, the start of a paper wasp nest in a hollow fence post (via Megan Wannarka)

The honey bee nest that you see is inside of a wooden structure and honeybees will typical prefer creating their nests inside of a structure (walls of houses included!) while a paper wasp makes its own structure inside another structure or seen here on the outside of the garage in front of the garage door (how convenient!)

And last but not least, the sting! Not exactly what you want to think about when deciding the stinging insect in front of you is a bee or a wasp, but generally, a honeybee won’t sting you unless you try swatting it away or blow on it (the carbon dioxide in your breath is an indicator of predation to them, and they will sting you). Luckily Dr. Justin Schmidt already did the work of being stung by most Hymenoptera species to be able to tell you that wasp stings about the same honey bees. 

Figure 3 Schmidt Insect Sting Pain Index showing honey bees at a 2 pain and wasps at 4 (“The Chemical Compositions of Insect Venoms,” n.d.)

Of course, people have different thresholds to pain and feel it differently. But the stingers of honeybees and wasps are different. 



Figure 4 Honey Bee worker stinger (Fisher & Klinkenborg, 2010) versus a wasp worker stinger (“The Chemical Compositions of Insect Venoms,” n.d.)

As you can see above on the left, the honey bee worker stinger is barbed, making it stick in the skin of the intended victim. When this happens, the venom sac of the honeybee worker is attached to the stinger, is pulled from the body of the bee-killing it in the process. One and done.  While the wasp stinger is smooth, allowing it and other wasps to sting you multiple times. Both honeybees and wasps have their own alarm pheromone that is released when they sting, telling other honey bees or wasps nearby to help. In some cases, wasps stings are worse because you can be stung over and over by the same wasps when you leave the area. 

Hopefully, this helps you not get stung by honey bees or wasps, and if you do, at least enables you to tell the difference. 



Droege, S., & USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program. (2010). USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from Flickr website:

Fisher, R. L., & Klinkenborg, V. (2010). Bee. Retrieved from

Giaimo, C. (2020). There Are Wasps in the Yard. You’d Better Get to Know Them. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from The New York Times website:

The Chemical Compositions of Insect Venoms. (n.d.). Retrieved July 26, 2020, from Compound Interest website: