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Bees, Wasps, & Hornets: Everything You Need to Know

Colin GrubbApr 19, 2017

What’s the difference between these three stinging insects? Bees are furry, collect pollen, and can die after stinging people. Wasps have two sets of wings and females can sting repeatedly. Hornets belong to a sub classification of wasp but are a bit fatter around the middle. All three insects form colonies around a queen.


There are more than 20,000 species of bee and they are found on every continent except Antarctica, and in every eco system that contains flowering plants that are insect pollenated. They range in size from .08 inches to 1.54 inches. Fossilized ancestors to the modern bee can be found as far back as the early Cretaceous period, 146-100 million years ago.

Although some bees are solitary, the honeybee and bumblebee live together in highly organized colonies situated around a queen. The hives are comprised of three castes: queen, workers, and drones. The queen spends her entire life mating with the male drones. The male drones sole purpose in life is to mate with the queen and die shortly afterward. The workers are infertile females and perform the functions necessary to the daily survival of the hive. They usually live about six weeks.


There are 7 species of honeybee and 44 subspecies. Their bodies generally consist of golden yellow and brown bands, which serve as a warning to predators or those looking to steal honey from the hive. They average about half an inch long, and their anatomy consists of a head, stinger, legs, antenna, thorax and abdomen. They live together in hives of up to 50,000 individuals. The hives are made up of hexagonal cells and are usually constructed in rock crevices or hollow trees. The cells are multifunctional, as they are used to house larvae and to store honey, nectar, and pollen.

Honeybees perform a significant service to humanity by unwittingly transferring pollen from one plant to another. In fact, approximately 1/3 of the food Americans eat is a result, either directly or indirectly, of honeybee pollination. Honeybees themselves consumer the pollen and nectar from flowering plants and convert it to honey. They can become extremely aggressive around anything they perceive to be a threat to the hive. Although they can sting other insects multiple times, honeybees can only sting humans once, as the barbed stinger is attached to its intestines and detaches from the bee after the sting.


There are more than 250 species of bumblebee and they are generally found in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere. In appearance they are generally very fuzzy and plump. They are larger than honeybee, have fewer stripes and a rounder tip at the abdomen. The form colonies of anywhere between 50 and 400 bees but do not gather in highly organized hives like honeybees. Bumblebees form nests on or below the ground, which are made of wax and disorganized by comparison.

Bumblebees collect nectar from deep within flowers and therefore have a long tongue that protrudes from a sheath. The queen and young workers secrete the wax, which is used for the nest from their abdomen. They then scrape it off with their legs and mold it. The queen and the female workers can sting, and since their stinger does not have any barbs they can sting repeatedly with no harm to themselves. They usually ignore people and only attack when the nest is in danger. The queen however, aggressively will invade other nests to kill the resident queen to lay her own eggs.


Wasps are extremely diverse with more than 30,000 identifies species worldwide. Their physical appearance varies tremendously by species, ranging in color from green to black to blue and can be anywhere from microscopic to 2 inches. Wasps are distinguishable from bees by their lower abdomen, which comes to a point, and the narrow middle section that comes between the abdomen and the thorax. Although we typically identify wasps as angry, stinging, swarms of menacing insects, most of them are actually solitary and perform the service of controlling pest populations.

Social wasps – those that form colonies – account for only about 1,000 species, including yellow jackets and hornets. The vast majority of wasps are solitary; this includes the larger and more ferocious species. Social wasps only use their stingers in defense of the colony. Solitary wasps rely on their sting to hunt.

Yellow Jackets

Yellow jackets are only called such in North America. In other countries they are simply wasps, belonging to the genera Dolichovespula and Vespula. Yellow jackets comprise 50 identified species and are found throughout the world, notably in North America, Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They average about half an inch long, and because of their small size and alternating black and yellow bands are often mistaken for bees. Yellow jackets live in colonies of thousands of insects and usually build their nests below ground, though they can build them in protected locations above ground such as cracks in walls and under stairways.

A yellowjacket’s diet consists of mainly fruit, nectar, and sap, although they are scavengers who perform a beneficial service to man by eating harmful flies and grubs. Though not as hairy as bees, yellowjackets do attract enough pollen to their bodies to be beneficial to certain flowering plants. Further differing from bees, yellowjackets make their nests by chewing wood fiber into a pulp. The female yellowjacket has a lance stinger with barbs attached and is capable of using it again and again. In fact, if a yellowjacket perceives an individual as a threat to the hive, it can actually pursue the aggressor. The stings are extremely painful and can actually be life threatening to those allergic.


Hornets are the largest species of social wasp. Some can grow slightly more than two inches in length. There are 25 recognized species; most of them exist in Asia although they are also found in Europe, Russia, and North America. Hornets are often confused for yellowjacket, though they are typically larger and their yellow markings are contrasted more with brown instead of black. Hornets build their nests in hexagonal combs like bees, but build them out of a paper-like material they make by chewing up wood fiber and regurgitating it with their saliva. Unlike yellowjackets, most hornet species build their nests into roughly spherical shape hanging from tree branches or other overhead object.

A hornet’s diet consists mainly of plant nectar and insects. Like yellowjackets, hornets eat many insects that are considered pests and also scavenge dumpsters and trash piles for meat. Like all wasps hornets can sting repeatedly. Unlike wasps, hornet stings contain acetylcholine, which makes them even more painful than usual. In fact, some hornet species rank among the most venomous species of insect in the world. Causing multiple human deaths a year.

Spider Wasps

There are about 5,000 species of this solitary hunter that exist worldwide. Although they can grow as large as two inches and look absolutely fearsome, spider wasps are not normally aggressive to humans. They are efficient hunters of spiders, which they paralyze with their sting and drag to their underground burrows. They then lay an egg on the abdomen of the spider and close the nest, distributing dead ants on the ground above to ward off predators. When the larvae hatches it feeds on the spider, which is still living. Adult spider wasps feed on nectar and plants.

One variant of spider wasp called the tarantula hawk is notable because it boasts what has been ranked the second most painful insect sting on Earth. This striking monster has a dark blue body and auburn wings. Although the pain only lasts 5 minutes, one victim described it as “like having all your blood suddenly turn to hydrofluoric acid while being electrocuted.” The good news is, because they are generally docile toward humans, the risk of getting stung by a tarantula hawk is relatively low unless you happen to step on one in bare feet or are foolish enough to purpose agitate one. If you do encounter a tarantula hawk and want it out of your way, spraying it with a garden hose from a safe distance will usually do the trick.

Pest Control for Bees, Wasps, and Hornets

In the case of bees, the only way to control them is to remove the hive or nest completely from your premises. It is not recommended you do this on your own, as it requires specific strategies and tools. Always consult a bee specialist or other pest control technician in order to eliminate a bee problem from your home. Removal strategies for wasps are a bit different.

First you must determine whether you are dealing with wasps, yellowjackets, or hornets. You can then determine which is the most effective kind of pesticide. Aerosol spray is best for elevated nests and hives; insecticidal dust is more effective for ground nests. In either case wear protective clothing that covers your entire body, long pants tucked into boots, a sweater with a hood, a scarf across the lower portion of your face and protective eyewear. In the case of elevated nests stand at a safe distance, spray the nest opening for 10-15 seconds, and quickly move away. Leave the nest overnight and if you still see activity the next day hit it again.

With ground nests wear the same protective clothing and pour the insecticidal dust down the nest opening. Employ the same process of leaving it overnight and reapplying the next day if they are still alive.

If that sounds dangerous it’s because it is. Wasp, yellowjacket, and hornet stings are extremely painful, and potentially life threatening to those with allergies. If you do not relish the idea of being exposed to a swarm of agitated stinging insects, we recommend you leave this to a professional service. To that end, take a look at our Top Ten Pest Control Services of this year.