Bees, Wasps and Hornets: Here’s How To Tell The Difference

Four common bees and wasps

What’s the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? This is a question I tend to ask myself, especially when surrounded by swarms of buzzing yellow jackets when eating outside. I, for one, know from experience that fuzzy honeybees can make excellent garden companions. But, what’s up with their pesky yellow and black striped brethren? Do they have any purpose? They only seem interested in stinging me.

Recently I was asked to represent my garden club at a National Capitol Area Garden Club (NCAGC) function in Maryland. I brought a floral arrangement for the table, grabbed a slice of homemade quiche and sat back to enjoy the lecture. I was thrilled to discover that speaker, Kerry Wixted, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was planning to answer these very questions.

Wixted’s talk, entitled Bees, Bats and Snakes: Oh My! was as amusing as it was informative. I’ll save the bats and snakes for later. Here’s what she said.

THE MAIN DIFFERENCES

Aside from stinging ability, there are some important differences between bees, wasps and hornets. Most notably, bees feed on pollen and nectar while wasps and hornets feed primarily on insects (although many also pollinate.) And only bees produce honey.

Let’s start with bees.

BEES

Bees are highly valued for their pollination abilities. Without them, much of our agriculture would disappear.

A honeybee – dense fur helps honeybees collect more pollen

Typically golden in color, bees are furry (the better to catch the pollen with). They also come equipped with pollen baskets attached to their hind legs. Bees die when they sting. Bumblebees, wasps and hornets do not.

In fact, if a bee decides to sting you, it’s a conscious choice to sacrifice his or her own life for the hive. Once the barbed stinger is embedded in your skin, it is wrenched from the bee’s body, and the bee dies.

Honeybees

Perhaps the best known of all bees, honeybees nest in colonies above ground in tree cavities, rock crevices and bee boxes. They make their hives by chewing wax until it becomes soft, then forming it into a honeycomb.

Honeybees in honeycomb

Bumblebees are a subspecies of honeybees. They nest both above and below ground, where their large size makes them easy to distinguish. (For more information on bumblebees and their quirky habits, click here for bumblebeeconservation.org. 

There are over 400 different varieties of bees in Maryland, many of which prefer to nest in the ground or in wood or crevices. These kind of bees are known as ‘solitary’ bees, meaning they nest as a family unit – just female and offspring, Occasionally, though, solitary bees will nest close to one another, giving the impression of a colony.

Solitary bee inspecting a potential nesting site

Among the more common solitary bee species in Maryland are mason, squash and sweat bees. These bees are rarely aggressive and each has its own special relationship with certain types of vegetables and flowers.

Squash bees nest in the ground, sometimes right under the squash plants that they pollinate. They start their pollinating at sunrise (when flowers open), before most other bees are active. Squash bees resemble honeybees in size and coloration, but they are bigger and bulkier and only feed on plants in the Cucurbita family.

Sometimes in the morning you can open up a squash blossom and see the adult bee sleeping inside,” said Wixsted.

Squash bee

Sweat Bees, also known as Halictid bees, are a diverse group of metallic and non-metallic bees. Most are dull to metallic black, although the species can also be metallic green, blue or purple. Unlike the bulky bumbles and squash bees, sweat bees tend to be slender. Some of them are solitary nesters, while others are more social, choosing to nest in colonies.

Green metallic sweat bee

Mason Bees, also known as orchard bees, are out early in the season pollinating fruit trees and early-flowering plants like pieris and forsythia. They’re solitary nesters, preferring to make their homes out of mud that they haul back to their nest. Brownish in color, they are often mistaken for flies.

Red mason bee

WASPS

Like bees, wasps are important pollinators, but they are less efficient, due to having less hair on their bodies. Instead, they prefer to feed mainly on insects, which they use to provide proteins to the larvae in their colony. They do not produce honey.

Yellow-jacket wasp

In the early summer months, wasps act as a natural pest control, feeding on caterpillars and other insects in the garden. However, as the summer wears on and the food supply becomes scarcer, they switch over to buzzing around garbage cans and our picnic lunches. There are currently over 1200 wasp species in Maryland, the most common of which are yellow-jackets and paper wasps.

Swarm of bees

Wasps nest both above and below ground. (Yellow-jackets nest in the ground.) Some build their nests in old rodent holes, widening them as they develop their hives. Wasps make their nests out of a substance similar to paper. They chew wood into a pulp and then stick it together with their saliva to form a honeycomb. These are referred to as paper hives.

Wasp nest

HORNETS

A subspecies of wasps, hornets are the largest in the family. They tend to be more black/brownish and white with little bright color and can be distinguished from other wasps by their wider heads and rounder abdomens. 

European hornet – notice the lack of visible fur on the body

The only true species of hornet in the United States is the European hornet, also known as the bald-faced hornet. The young eat caterpillars and the adults pollinate flowers. In Maryland, the European hornet is highly prized for its preference for eating cicadas.

Here’s a key to the bees and wasps pictured in the cover photo:

For more information on how to build nests for native bees, click here for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. Or, to learn more about the different kinds of bees in your garden and what they pollinate, click here for my post How To Make Sense of the Buzz In Your Garden.

 

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