Differences Between Wasps, Bees and Hornets and How to Identify Them

What’s the Difference Between Wasps, Bees and Hornets

We’ve all had to deal with a stinging insect at least once in our lifetime. The most common ones are bees, wasps, and hornets, but what is the difference between them and how does that have any influence on us as their victims?

The Fantastic Pest Control team is here to get some answers.

What are Bees?

Bees are flying insects, which live in social colonies maintained by an egg-laying queen bee and worker bees. Evolutionary, they have something in common with wasps and ants. They play a crucial role in plant pollination. There are nearly 20 000 species of bees, including the most commonly known honey bees, bumblebees, and stingless bees. Their main diet is flower nectar. And yes, bees make honey.

How bad is their sting?

If a bee is out and about in the fields, looking for flowers to gather nectar and pollen, it will most likely mind its own business. There’s nothing to worry about. But, if you’re in close proximity to their hive, that’s another story. Bees would vigorously defend their nest from anything they deem a threat.

When a bee stings you, the sting pierces the skin and the insect injects its venom. In most cases, the stinger gets stuck in the victim’s skin and tears loose from the bee’s abdomen. This is a massive injury for the bee, so it dies. Honey bees are the only bee species that die after stinging. Bee stings aren’t deadly, as long as the victim doesn’t have an allergy to the venom.

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What are Wasps?

Wasps are flying insects that evolutionary have nothing in common with either bees or ants. The most commonly known types of wasps are yellow jackets and hornets. Similar to bees, wasps can be seen living in large colonies maintained by an egg-laying queen and non-reproducing workers.

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However, most wasps are solitary, and each female lays eggs independently. A lot of them also tend to lay their eggs in the nests of other wasps. Their main diet is flower nectar, but they are known to also prey on other smaller insects. Unlike bees, wasps play almost no role in plant pollination, save for a few specific species.

How bad is their sting?

Wasps would usually mind their own business, like bees and only attack if the hive is being threatened. But in late summer, the social structure of the colony breaks down, so wasps become aggressive, even if you’re not close to their nest. If you try to swat them, they will sting.

Unlike bees, a wasp can sting multiple times, without dying. A wasp’s venom can be a lot more dangerous too, depending on the aggressiveness of the species. In general, a few stings by a single wasp are not deadly, as long as the victim is not allergic to wasp venom.

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What are Hornets?

As mentioned above – hornets are a specific type of wasp, easily distinguished by the relatively large top margin of the head and the rounded yellow segment of the abdomen just behind the waist. Hornets live in big colonies with an egg-laying queen and non-fertile female workers. Only one species of hornet is found in Europe, Russia, and North America, and that is the European hornet. All other species are found in Asia.

How bad is their sting?

Hornets are the most aggressive of the stinging insects, especially if their hive is disturbed. Hornet stings are more painful to humans than typical wasp stings because the hornet venom contains a large amount of acetylcholine. They can also sting repeatedly, unlike bees. The toxicity of their stings varies depending on the species.

The European hornet sting is not fatal, as long as the victim has no allergy. But multiple stings by non-European hornets can cause death. The stings of the Asian giant hornet cause 30 to 50 human deaths annually in Japan. Allergic reactions can be treated, and the hornet venom can be taken out of the body, as long as the person manages to find a hospital in time.


The following table can help you distinguish between the three most common stinging insects.

BeeFuzzy bodies; black and yellow stripes.Rock crevices and hollow trees in close proximity to flower fields.Flower nectar, ripe fruit, honey.Not aggressive, unless the hive is in danger. Stings once and dies. Venom is not deadly unless the victim is allergic.Bees play a huge role in plant pollination.
WaspBlack and yellow bodies, no fuzzy parts.Aerial and ground and underground nests. Flower nectar, other insects and they also tend to scavenge for sweets and proteins.Aggressive not just near the nest, but away from it too. Can sting repeatedly. Venom is stronger than the bee’s venom, but harmless to humans unless the victim is allergic.The vast majority of wasps don’t play any role in plant pollination, save from a few species.
HornetBody is mostly black with small yellow stripes, or a single yellow ring on the abdomen.Aerial large nests.Prey on other insects and scavenge for sweets and proteins.Very aggressive when the nest is disturbed. They sting repeatedly. Some species’ venom is deadly even if the victim is not allergic.Hornets play a role in pollination, though not all species do.

Hopefully, this has answered the most important questions about the most common stinging insects. Did we miss something? Ask us in the comments.

Image source: Sten Roosvald/shutterstock.com

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