Bees vs Wasps

It’s not often that bees and wasps are mistaken for each other—probably because the general consensus is that wasps are evil and if you see one you better run. Although many people are afraid of (or even allergic to) bees, they do seem to have a better reputation. How come they are so similar though, and what makes them different?

Bees and wasps are actually related. They are both species of an order of insects called Hymenoptera, which also includes ants. Insects in this order are typically—but not always—identifiable by their pairs of membranous wings, their segmented abdomen and, of course, their stingers.

Physical Characteristics of a Bee

The most common representation of bees is that of the western honeybee worker: small, fuzzy, with black and yellow stripes, and a sharp stinger.

honeybee anatomy

Bumblebees are also one of the first to come to mind when thinking of bees. There are approximately 20,000 different species of bee, though, so it’s only natural that their traits will vary.

bumble bee anatomy

For starters, not all bees are black and yellow. Their colors, patterns, and markings differ greatly between species.

Bees vary in size, too, according to type and species. For example, the smallest bee we know of is the stingless bee, which is tiny, at less than an eighth of an inch long. The largest is the leafcutter bee, which can grow to lengths of 1.5 inches!

With the honeybee, workers average around half an inch, but queens and drones are fatter and longer, with queens able to grow to just under an inch in length.

Regardless of the diversity in size or color, bees are fairly easy to identify.

One thing that sets them apart from other Hymenoptera is their fur, called setae. Another is the shape. Bees are quite chubby compared to their relatives, and it’s only emphasized by their fuzz. Bees also have flat, hairy legs and shorter, rounder wings than their cousins.

Physical Characteristics Of A Wasp

Wasps are far more numerous than bees, with around 75,000 different species found across the globe. The typical representation of wasps is of their most generic species, Vespula vulgaris—or, more aptly, the common wasp.

Some of the smallest wasps, megaphragma mymaripenne, are literally microscopic. The biggest—the Asian giant hornet can grow up to 2 inches long. Wasp colors and patterns also vary, from the common black and yellow, to red, to bright blue.

Wasps do not have setae, so their exoskeletons are sleek—much shinier and smoother than that of bees. They are also a lot more vibrant, even brighter, than fuzzy bees.

german wasp

Wasps are slender and cylindrical, proportionately longer bodies than bees. Their wings are also bigger, longer and sharper than those of bees.

Wasp antennae are longer, too. Their legs are rounder, and they’re smooth and waxy, instead of hairy.

Behavioral Characteristics Of A Bee

Bees contribute to pollination in plants, and in the case of honeybees (and bumblebees), they produce honey and wax.

Bees are, for the most part, not aggressive and will only usually attack when they feel threatened. Contrary to popular belief, they can sting multiple times (with the exception of honeybees, who die as their stings tear away from their bodies).

Bees typically live in colonies, although there are solitary bees who don’t. Within colonies, they follow an order of a queen as their most important citizen, the workers who maintain hives and nests, and the drones—who don’t serve any other purpose beyond reproduction.

Some bees, like the bumblebee, don’t live in hives: they nest instead. For the most part, they are social, diurnal, and passive, but there are exceptions to this rule.

bumble bee ground nest

Bees are mostly vegetarians that feed on nectar and pollen. They are not predatory and don’t hunt. Bees forage for pollen and nectar, which they store in their hives or nests.

Bees have many natural predators, including wasps. Other predators include bears, birds, rodents, and a number of parasites, like the wax moth.

Behavioral Characteristics Of A Wasp

Wasps are predatory and—unlike bees—will hunt and kill other insects, including bees. In fact, there aren’t many insects that aren’t hunted by wasps, and they are even known to scavenge on carrion.

Because of this, wasps have earned a reputation for being aggressive. This is not entirely true, though, and is probably a common misconception. It’s unlike wasps to attack outside of feeding or defense.

Bees are probably seen as kinder than wasps because they’re herbivores, but the reality is that they are equal in temperament.

Wasps are not strictly carnivores, however, and will also feed on nectar and pollen. While they do contribute to pollination, they are not as efficient at this because they do not have fur for pollen to gather on.

pollen collecting hairs on leg of bee
These tiny leg hairs help to trap and collect pollen.

Like bees, wasps live in colonies, mostly in nests, that also have queens, workers, and drones. This order of wasp societies is much the same as bees, with queens being the most valuable, workers seeing to food and protection and drones living to reproduce.

Wasps do not produce honey or wax, but they do form an important part of the ecosystem and population control of the insects and creatures they feed on.

Wasps themselves are the prey of other creatures, mostly birds and reptiles. Some insects also hunt wasps, including praying mantises, dragonflies, and moths.

Bee Stings vs Wasp Stings

Whether you think bee stings or wasp stings are more lethal is purely a matter of opinion.

A bee has a barbed stinger that can inject up to 50 micrograms of venom into its victim. It’s a misconception that stinging will kill the bee. This is only true for the honeybee. Bee stingers are a defense mechanism, and bees are known to only sting when they feel threatened.

bee stinging person

Wasps, on the other hand, have smaller stingers than bees, that can only inject 15 micrograms of venom. The difference, though, is that a wasp’s stinger is a weapon designed to strike—not purely a means of defense.

It’s not to say that bees have a better temperament than wasps—they will both only attack if they feel it necessary—but wasps are predators, who can and will sting multiple times if they are provoked.

Bee venom is mostly comprised of melittin—a toxin that causes inflammation. Wasp stings contain enzymes that break down your cells and block your release of serotonin, so you feel more pain.

Both venoms contain histamines, so allergies are common and could be deadly. In both wasps and bees, they release pheromones when they sting—a signal to others to attack. If either a bee or wasp stings you, your best bet is to get away as fast as possible.

Beehives vs Wasp Nests

Bee and wasp societies are similar, but their homes are not.

Beehives are typically made to contain hexagonal cells. These cells are built with beeswax and are used to store food, and to house eggs, larvae, and cocoons. They are usually above ground (though some nesting bees will live beneath), and are often occupied for years.

honeycomb with bees

In the case of bumblebees and some solitary bees, nests are temporary and are abandoned in the winter.

Beehives are typically organized and efficient. The queen rarely leaves it, and it’s maintained by workers. Cells are arranged by preference. Honey is stored at the top of the comb. Below it, you’ll find—in order—pollen cells, worker brood cells, and drone cells. Honeybee hives can contain tens of thousands of bees at a time.

Wasp nests are slightly different. Since they don’t produce wax, they typically build their nests out of wood pulp. They gather bits of wood, chew it to soften it, and then use it to build combs for brood. Wasps also burrow, and it’s more common to find mounds in the soil, than built nests.

Most wasp nests are built by the queens and then handed over to the workers. There can be thousands of wasps in a nest at a time, but they aren’t as strict with bees—having only one queen and all.

Since they don’t produce honey either, wasp nests are purely for shelter and breeding. They are also quite unsightly, and aren’t as neat or as ordered as beehives.

wasp nest

It’s not uncommon to find wasp nests around your home. All it means is that they have found a dry, comfortable spot to live in. This can be disconcerting, but remember that wasps are undeserving of their bad name, and will leave you alone so long as you don’t provoke them.

Are There Other Differences?

Bees get far more attention than wasps because they are seen as more productive and valuable in the world. Wasps have a bad reputation for being troublesome and mean, for preying on bees and having a carnivorous or scavenging nature, and for not contributing much to the ecosystem.

This is false of course. Wasps are in just as much danger as bees, and their extinction would be just as catastrophic. They may not give us wax or honey, but they serve in population control, and pollination too. Both bees and wasps should be appreciated and protected. They are both important, beautiful, and fascinating – in their similarities and their differences.

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