The Difference Between Bees, Wasps and Hornets

Do you know the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? You may be surprised to learn that some are imposters. Take yellow jackets, for instance, who look like bees when in fact they are wasps. Wasps and hornets may seem good-for-nothing, but like bees, they all serve a purpose. So before you reach for the insecticide, please see below.

Recently I attended a lecture by Kerry Wixted of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Her talk, entitled Bees, Bats and Snakes: Oh My! had everyone buzzing. I’ll save the bats and snakes for later. Below are some highlights from her presentation.


Aside from stinging ability, there are some key differences between bees, wasps and hornets. Most notably, bees feed on pollen and nectar while wasps and hornets feed mainly on insects. Only bees produce honey.

Let’s start with bees.


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

A honeybee – dense fur helps it collect more pollen

Honeybees are perhaps the best known of all bees. Typically gold and furry, they have pollen baskets attached to their hind legs. Honeybees die when they sting, unlike bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps and hornets who do not. 

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

Honeybees prefer to nest in colonies above ground in tree cavities, rock crevices and boxes designed expressly for them. They make their hives by chewing wax until it becomes soft. Then they form it into a honeycomb.

Honeybees in honeycomb

Bumblebees are a subspecies of honeybees. They like to nest both above and below ground. Their large,  fuzzy bodies make them easily recognizable. 

Solitary bees prefer to nest in the ground, in wood or in crevices. Tiny in size, you’ll usually find them in a family unit; just one female and her offspring. Occasionally, solitary bee families will nest close to one another, giving the impression of a colony.

Solitary bee inspecting a potential nesting site


It may surprise you to know that wasps are important pollinators. However, they are less efficient than bees since they have less hair on their bodies. As a result, they prefer to feed mainly on insects, which they use to provide proteins to the larvae in their colony. They do not produce honey. And as I mentioned above, yellow jackets are wasps.

Yellow-jacket wasp

In the early summer months, wasps act as a natural pest control, feeding on caterpillars and other insects in the garden. They become a nuisance, though, when later in the summer their food supply becomes scarce. That’s when they switch to buzzing around garbage cans and picnics. 

Swarm of bees

Wasps nest both above and below ground, while yellow-jackets nest in the ground only. Some even build their nests in old rodent holes, widening them as their hives develop. Recently, we discovered a hole of yellow jackets in our Demonstration Garden that sent two team members to the hospital. It’s important to know the difference. 

Another type of wasp, the paper wasp, makes its nest out of a substance similar to paper. These wasps 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


Although they are a subspecies of wasps, hornets are the largest in the family. They tend to be more black/brownish and white than other wasps and have little bright color. They are also distinguishable 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 bees and what they pollinate, click here for my post How To Make Sense of the Buzz In Your Garden.


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About carole funger

I'm a landscape designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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