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Wasp or Bee? How can you tell the difference?

Wasp or Bee? How can you tell the difference? Back to the separation of wasps and bees, which is not always so simple, and while bees and bumblebees belong to a monophyletic lineage (a group that includes the most recent common ancestor and all their descendants) and their characters are quite clear, the concept of wasp is somewhat vaguer.

Here an Asian Honey bee in a lily on the Peak.

Lets take a deeper dive…weeeeeeeee, splosh:

  • Bees can vary quite a bit; they might be small and metallic green sweat bees; large purple, black and hairy, like the carpenter bees; small and blue banded like some digger bees; or a fluffy light-brown, such as with the leaf-cutter bees. Or even more like our typical idea of bee, the honey bees or the big, buzzing, yellow and black bumble bees. So that does not help very much. Let's look at wasps. - Most wasps have smooth-shelled bodies that are painted in yellow and black stripes. Other wasps less easy to identify also tend to be slender and less hairy. Wasps will have a ‘waist’, where their body joins. They are also thinner and have longer bodies and legs than bees. So, if it looks bright yellow, it’s most likely to be wasp. Bee’s tend to be rounder, bumblebees in particular are large and round and perhaps the most noticeable feature of bees is that they are hairy, where wasps are not. However not all bees are completely round so make sure you look at their middles to see whether or not they have that distinctive ‘waist’ that wasps have when trying to identify them.

  • Bees have barbed stingers, with lots of tiny hooks, and so can only sting once, whereas wasp stingers are smooth and they can sting repeatedly. In either case, only the females have stingers. This does not really help to tell them apart, unless you have been stung. And of course, this painful sting is the basis of our fear of bees and wasps, because really nobody likes the blistering burn of a sting. Also, very worrying, many people these days (including my mother-in-law), could die from a sting from an anaphylactic immune response to the venom. In the USA there are an average 62 deaths per annum from bee/wasp/hornet stings. That is an astonishing 10 times more than from snake bites.

  • Behaviour is also a key differentiator; - Bees are flower-visiting pollinators, that track changes in floral abundance and quality over the season in order to collect pollen and nectar to bring back to the hive to feed their larval sisters. Because of this variable and complex lifestyle, bees are smart insects, able to reason and innovate, all while remembering their past life experiences to amazing levels of detail. Consequently, bees are curious but usually gentle creatures and they rarely go on the offensive to sting anyone or anything, except in self defence. - Wasps are another story altogether. Wasps are omnivores, most of their larvae are carnivorous, and the vast majority of the Vespoidea Super-Family is made up of parasitic wasps that use their ovipositor to lay eggs on, or in, other insects, as prey for their young upon emergence from the eggs. So they are mostly hunting, killing machines, and aggressive by nature. Lastly, wasps just seem to be more annoying and scary, and although they won’t go out of their way to sting you, they do tend to hover around humans. Wasps will also be attracted to rubbish or human food, so if you feel like your picnic is under attack, it’s almost certainly a wasp that you’re facing.

  • So, think of it this way; Bee’s tend to be passive insects, buzzing around flowers, but wasps are more likely to be in your face, around human food, making a nest on your porch, and more likely to sting.

Here a typical wasp, a potter wasp, in flight.


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