Ok folks, a wasp is NOT a bee! (Shocker, I know). Nor are yellow jackets and hornets.
It may seem obvious when seeing it on paper, but if you were in your backyard this past weekend trying to enjoy the beautiful weather on your beautiful deck, and a YABFO (“yellow and black flying object.” Duh.) made a kamikaze-esque attempt at your face, it is possible that, regardless of what that “object” actually was, you would tell someone that it was a bee.
That is because, in many parts of the United States, Michigan included, the general public refers to all bees, wasps, yellow jacket, and hornets simply as “bees.”
Case in point, just the other day a wonderful customer asked me if there was anything that I could do to help with her “bee problem.” After asking a couple questions about the behavior of the insect she saw, I quickly ascertained that it, in fact, was not a bee but a wasp problem that my customer had. (And, to put your mind at ease, after much consideration, I eventually forgave her for the misnomer and allowed her to continue being my customer :))
You are probably wondering, “how did you know it was not a bee problem just by asking a couple questions?” Well, as a matter of fact, that is exactly what I am going to share with you. (In exchange, I merely ask that you attempt to control your enthusiasm.)
Specifically, I will explore the difference in appearance between bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets. And, as a bonus, I will explain why you SHOULD give a diddly squat about such differences.
- Bees: I don’t think anyone is confusing wasps, yellow jackets or hornets with carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.). It is the “honeybee” (Apis Mellifera) that causes the mix up. As a result, for our purposes, I will refer to the honeybee simply as “bee.” The bee has a small, hairy appearance. Bees are about an inch long and can be entirely black, or black or brown with orange-yellowish stripes. They typically have plump and fuzzy bodies (think of the little guy frequently perched upon Winnie the Pooh’s nose).
- Wasps: They’re all wasps people! What I am talking about is the paper wasp. I’ll keep it short and just call them “wasps.” I was unable to come up with a Disney reference for wasps. Sorry. It is probably because bees are more “likable” than wasps. The wasp has smooth shiny skin, a narrow waist, and four black-and-yellow-patterned wings.
- Yellow Jackets: Yellow jackets are ground-nesting wasps that you wouldn’t invite on a picnic. Like wasps, yellow jackets have smooth bodies. They also have well-defined waists and thin legs.
- Hornets: Hornets are closely related to yellow jackets. Their nests resemble a large, inverted teardrop-like ball. Hornet nests are typically attached to trees, bushes or sides of buildings.
Why Identification Matters
There are several reasons why you should identify the flying, stinging pest before launching an all-out assault.
An accurate identification will accomplish the following:
- aid in avoiding behaviors that will incite an attack,
- aid in mitigating the effects of a sting,
- assist in understanding the extent of an infestation,
- and help to avoid an awkward confrontation with your beekeeping neighbor.
Let’s take a further look at each of these.
Difference in what “Buzzes” them
While bees are capable of giving a very painful sting, they are unlikely to attack unless provoked. In other words, bees commonly sting to defend themselves or their colonies.
Wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, however, are much more natural and aggressive predators. Going back to my wonderful customer who thought she had a bee problem, this is how I knew she was mistaken. She explained that the “bees” were attacking her while she was sitting peacefully on her deck. As such behavior is atypical of bees, I immediately knew that a more aggressive stinging insect (Hymenoptera) was the culprit.
Also, bees are capable of stinging their victim only once and, shortly after doing so, they die. Wasps on the other hand, are capable of attacking and stinging multiple times. A sting from either may be life threatening to those who are allergic.
Yellow jackets are the guys you see around garbage cans in the late summer and early fall. This is because their diet changes from protein to sugars throughout the summer. Watch out for them while you are mowing your lawn or working in your yard or garden as vibrations, even from a distance, can trigger an attack!
Hornets are known to eat some tree sap but they are also effective predators. As such, hornets will attack but are typically less likely than wasps and yellow jackets to do so. Hornets, however, are not hesitant to attack if they feel their nest is being threatened. And some, like the bald-faced hornet, are among the most aggressive stinging flyers.
Difference in the Treating the “Ouch”
A bee sting’s effects are immediately felt. If a victim is stung by a bee, quickly removing the stinger will limit the amount of venom injected into the victim. The longer the stinger remains, the more time the venom sac has to pump venom into the victim.
The act of a bee sting releases alert pheromones which beckon other bees to the area to help defend the colony. Because the number of stings, the amount of venom injected, and the biological characteristics of the victim all play a role in determining the severity of the bee sting, the victim should seek medical attention. (This goes for the other stinging insects as well.)
Wasps, yellow jackets and hornets are capable of stinging a victim several times as their stingers remain intact after use. If you are stung, make sure to remove yourself from the area as you may be in a nesting site. This also goes for bee stings as we now know they will call their buddies for backup even after their stingers detach. Wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets, just like their cousin the bee, inject victims with venom.
Difference in Housekeeping
Bees live together in larger numbers than wasps. Maybe it’s because they are nicer. Who knows? Whatever, the reason, bee colony populations are typically over 75,000 while wasp colonies are closer to 10,000.
The queen wasp is in charge of building the colony nest while the queen bee relaxes as the worker bees develop and maintain hives. Unlike wasps who hibernate during the winter months, bees stay busy (hmm, busy bee. . . . I like that).
If you notice flying insects emerging from a hole in the dirt, it is likely that they are yellow jackets. Toward summer’s end, a nest may contain several thousand yellow jackets.
Hornets are social insects who construct hives made of chewed-up wood which they turn into a papery pulp. Their nests or hives may contain up to several thousand individuals.
Difference in Ecological Value
Bees, as everyone – especially Winnie the Pooh – knows, are capable of producing and accumulating significant amounts of honey. That, paired with the mild “bee temperament,” has led to a common belief, shared by beekeepers and commoners alike, that bees must be protected.
While not to the same extent as bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets are pollinators. This group also provides ecological services such as predation and parasitism of other pest insects and bugs.
See, I told you that everything that flies around with a yellow and black appearance, and a stinger, is not necessarily a bee. Now you, and my wonderful customer, know the difference. And, as G.I. Joe used to say, “knowing is half the battle.”
Notwithstanding this extremely informative article, professional help may be necessary to identify and treat your stinging insect problem. Let us take care of the stingers so you can enjoy your yard in peace!