Wasps and bees look alike, fly alike and sting alike. So why are they categorized separately? In this article, we look at wasp vs bee, and their key differences and similarities as well.
Both wasps and bees are stinging insects belonging to the order Hymenoptera.
However, there are several differences between them – starting from their looks to their behavior.
Also, many species of wasps share overlapping characteristics with bees and vice versa.
We have compiled a comprehensive guide for you to recognize the differences between the two based on their nests, behavior, size, sting, and more.
What Are Wasps?
Definition-wise, wasps are referred to as all the insects in the Hymenoptera order, which cannot be classified as either ants or bees.
They are flying insects with a sting that mostly live in large colonies.
Wasps feed on insects and nectar, which makes them invaluable in horticulture.
They help control pests such as whiteflies while also being moderately good pollinators.
What Are Bees?
Ancestry-wise bees have evolved from wasps but now are under the suborder of Apocrita.
Bees are a highly successful insect species found almost everywhere in the world.
They are the most important pollinator in your garden and the major source of honey in the world (note – we did not say “only”, and we will cover that in later sections).
Their sharp decline over the years has resulted in many commercially managed hives around the world to help with pollination.
Differences Between Wasps and Bees
Bees are smaller in stature than wasps. They measure between 0.4 to 0.5 inches depending on the type of bee
Yes, there are many types, including bumble bees, honey bees, and masonry bees.
Bees are hairy, with stocky bodies (there is not much distinction between the 3 body segments) colored brownish to golden. Their appendages are black.
Wasps, on the other hand, are larger – between 0.4 to 0.8 inches in size.
They have slimmer and smoother bodies and only have hair along their head and thorax.
Their bodies have a bright yellow color with black bands. The abdomen and the thorax have marked differences in size.
The wasp waist is often characterized as having an “hourglass” figure.
Social or Solitary?
Bees are eusocial, which means they live in highly structured colonies with defined hierarchies.
The structure of the colony differs based on the species. For example, honeybee colonies are generations long, whereas bumble bees create colonies annually.
Their colonies are also much smaller in size than those of honeybees.
However, over 200 species of bees live solitary lives and nest alone. Despite being solitary, they do live close to other bees. But they do not fall under the category of queen, worker, or drone.
A majority of wasps are solitary; in fact, over 20,000 species of them!
Around 900 wasp species, though, live in structured, eusocial colonies. These colonies consist mostly of female wasps.
Differences in nest making
Bee hives are large structures with individual hexagonal components, housing up to 40,000 bees.
These cells store food and eggs and provide housing for the drones. The hives can be within cavities or completely aerial and exposed.
Each nest has a single, low-hanging, south-facing entrance. The hive is made from chewed wax, and the inner walls are coated with plant resin.
Most social wasps use paper pulp to create their nests.
They chew wood and use the substance to make burrow-like structures in the ground, within plant stems, or in other sheltered areas like unused crevices and attics.
Some, like the paper wasp, chew stems and create a brown paper substance.
Solitary wasps construct mud cells or multiple vase-like cells along a wall or inside the ground.
Predatory wasps burrow in the group or, in some cases, do not create any nests.
Differences in habitats
Bees generally reside in hives, which they make in cavities (on rocks, trees, or even buildings).
They are found on every single continent except Antarctica. Bees generally live in green areas such as parks, woodlands, meadows, orchards, large gardens, and forests.
Solitary wasps can create mud cells along walls or rocks. At the same time, social wasps can live on trees or create burrows within the soil.
Wasps are found around trees in shrubbery, orchards, and forests. However, they are also found in urban settings, cities, and rocky areas with some mud.
As with bees, they are found in all climate zones except Antarctica.
Lifecycle & How Long They Live
The queen bee lays eggs, examines them, and places them side by side in the colony.
Fertilized eggs result in queen bees, and unfertilized eggs produce male worker bees.
Both larvae are fed “royal jelly” for the initial few days, after which only the females have access to it.
After multiple instar stages, the larvae will cover the cell with wax and pupate.
From the pupa, an adult bee will emerge. The pupal stage varies based on the type of bee. After this, each bee falls into their line of work.
Queen wasps only build a nest after fertilization. After making a small nest, she lays eggs within a chamber.
The eggs hatch into larvae, which are fed by the queen, and, after pupating, emerge as adult worker bees.
The first round of worker bees then takes over nest-building and feeding the remaining larvae.
Queen wasps live for a year, while worker wasps only live for about 22 days.
Bees are less aggressive by temperament, with bumble bees being quite docile.
They do possess a stinger, but since it can only be used once, bees only attack when highly threatened.
Wasps are more aggressive and can easily sting anything or anyone that touches them.
Most solitary wasps, however, are not aggressive and don’t sting.
What They Eat
Bees are exclusively herbivorous and feed on pollen and nectar.
This is collected by the older worker bees from various flowers for themselves as well as for the other bees in the hive.
They can also drink sugary drinks and honey. If you find an injured or tired bee, it’s a good idea to give it a few drops of sugared water.
Adult wasps are omnivorous, and their larvae are carnivorous. This makes them more likely to appear around humans who are simply enjoying their food.
Most wasps feed on sugary diets, which include nectar and pollen from flowers as well as the sugary liquid (honeydew) produced by aphids and some wasp larvae.
They might attack fruits, carrion, or any open food item. Some, like the yellow jackets, feed on flies and bees.
Adult wasps have short lifespans – hence, they mainly eat carbohydrates.
Bees may or may not have stingers. Stingless bees are called drones. Drones usually live within the hive, and as such, it’s rare to encounter one.
Bees with stingers are nonetheless non-aggressive.
They will only sting if you get too close or are perceived as a danger to their hive.
Bees can only sting once and die after losing their stinger.
Usually, a large swarm of bees signifies a swarm returning home after collecting pollen, and as such, they are not aggressive or dangerous.
Among wasps, only the females possess stingers. It is hypothesized that the “stinger” is merely an ovipositor, which is the case for most wasps.
They are more prone to aggression than bees.
Wasps can sting an endless number of times. Their stings are extremely painful, such as those of the tarantula hawks.
Ability to make honey
Honey is produced by bees from nectar collected from flowers.
The collected nectar is packed in the cells, covered, and subjected to a warm breeze made from their wings.
This turns the nectar into honey. Once dry, they cap the cell with beeswax.
Most wasps cannot produce honey. However, they do steal honey from other beehives!
The Mexican honey wasp is the only one that can make honey, but in much smaller quantities than bees.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is stronger bee or the wasp?
In a fight between a bee and a wasp, stings are rarely used and jaws are the primary weapons.
Wasps have a tougher exoskeleton, more powerful jaws, and are more durable and agile.
In some cases, two wasps usually corner a single bee and tear apart its sting and head, ultimately taking its belly.
Even in one-on-one fights, the bee’s fate remains the same.
Is a wasp sting worse than a bee?
Both wasp and bee stings can be painful and cause swelling, and some people may have more severe reactions or even go into anaphylactic shock.
The potency of the venom in wasps is typically greater, but there is no easy answer when it comes to deciding which sting is worse, as it varies from person to person.
It is important to carry an EpiPen if you are allergic to bee or wasp stings and seek medical help immediately if you have a severe reaction.
Knowing how to avoid stings is also a good idea – the best strategy is always to just stay at a safe distance from either.
Can a wasp sting you 10 times?
Yes, wasps can sting you multiple times. They have smooth stingers, which are meant specifically to plant their eggs into host insects multiple times.
Practically, they use these stingers several times during their lifetime for this purpose.
Hence, it is possible for them to sting you many times if they perceive that they are being attacked.
The same is not the case with bees. Their stingers are curved and get lodged into your skin when they sting you.
This means that the bee effectively dies in the act of stinging.
What is the cure for a wasp sting?
Wasp stings can cause large, local reactions that may be life-threatening if they occur in the mouth, nose, or throat.
Treatment for local skin reactions includes removing the stinger, washing the area, applying a cold or ice pack, and using over-the-counter products or home remedies to reduce pain and itching.
If the sting occurs in a sensitive area or if serious symptoms occur, immediate medical attention is necessary.
Emergency treatment may include IV antihistamines, epinephrine, corticosteroids, lab tests, and breathing support.
Bees and wasps are beautiful creatures that help pollinate our gardens. While wasps eradicate pests, bees give us honey.
Both should be appreciated rather than shunned or shooed away.
In any case, nature has equipped these insects with stingers, which is why they should be approached with care.
Wasp stings are especially painful.
However, both can result in an allergic reaction leading to anaphylactic shock. It’s best to seek immediate medical attention if that happens.
Thank you for reading.
Over the years, several of our readers have written to us asking about the specific differences between these two categories of stinging insects.
Please go through some of these emails below, which will give you a better appreciation of the similarities and interactions of these bugs with humans.
Letter 1 – Aphids and Aphid Wasp
Bugman, I found quite a few of these guys hangin out on my roses here in Southern California this morning. I think they are Aphids and are about to move on to the next level of their spiritual journey as soon as I can find the rose spray. I know that you are not into carnage on global scale but…………… They are very interesting looking upclose and personal.
We have no problem killing Aphids, but we prefer to shoot them off the plants with a strong jet of water, or occasionally, spray them with soapy water. While your Aphid photo is wonderful, we are thrilled with the Aphid Wasp you have sent in. Aphid Wasps are in the family Aphidiidae. They are small parasitoid wasps that lay eggs in the abdomen of aphids. The larva then devours the Aphid’s internal organs, leaving a dry hollow shell known as an Aphid Mummy. Looks like nature is taking care of your Aphid problem.
Letter 2 – Aphid Wasp
Subject: What are these? Location: Delaware April 3, 2017 5:05 pm Help please. I suspect these are mud dauber, but everyday 2 to 4 of these show up on my sliding glass doors. Not sure where they are coming from but want to make sure I don’t have a problem with something else. Signature: Thanks We did not recognize your Wasp, and could not locate it in the Thread-Waist Wasp family Specidae, so we contacted Eric Eaton. Eric Eaton Responds Daniel: This is a solitary wasp in the family Crabronidae, tribe Psenini. They prey on leafhoppers if I am not mistaken, to provide food for their offspring. Eric Based on Eric Eaton’s response, we learned that the subfamily Pemphredoninae which contains the tribe Psenini are known as Aphid Wasps. On BugGuide, the tribe Psenini are described as “Slender, with a distinctly petiolate abdomen.” That petiolate abdomen is the reason we originally suspected the family Specidae. Aphid Wasps is a new category for our site.
Letter 3 – Black Flower Wasp from Australia
Large black wasp type bug, with rather pretty wings January 14, 2010 We have a tree in our garden that has just come into flower, and as we’ve only been here for 9 months, it’s the first time we’e seen this. Of course it’s covered in your normal run of the mill bee ( that usually drink at my bird bath, or drown if they fall or get pushed in), but I also noticed a bug I’ve never seen before. It’s about twice the length of a bee, and completely black, with oil like black wings. Oil, as in like oil mixed with water and how it swirls – they change colour depending on the light to having purple, gold and blue swirls on them. The photos I took show that it has what seems to be a small stinger on the end of its tail. As I’ve never seen this before, the only thing I know is that it likes the flowers on our tree, and moves quite quickly on the tree. I’m pretty sure it’s a wasp, just not sure which one. The pics I got were the best I could get, they moved on pretty quick, from one bunch of flowers, around the tree, then to another bunch. Not sure if this is a native to Australia or not, but they don’t look too friendly anyway, being all black. If anyone knows, thanks 🙂 Sarah Shepparton, Victoria, Australia Dear Sarah, This is some species of Scoliid Wasp in the family Scoliidae, commonly called Flower Wasps. The adults feed upon nectar, and the female lays her eggs on Scarab Beetle Grubs similar to the White Grubs we just posted. Though we don’t like to base scientific identifications on Flickr pages, we found an image entitled a Black Flower Wasp, Discolia soror, on Flickr that looks like your wasp. A photo on the Botanic Gardens Trust government website supports that identification, so we are comfortable saying this is a Black Flower Wasp. According to BugGuide, Scoliid Wasps can be recognized because of their large size, dark coloration and hairy bodies. Csiro has a wonderful fact page, but alas, only a photo of a mounted specimen and we much prefer your excellent photos of a vibrant, living specimen. The site indicates: “Female black flower wasps can sting but rarely do, as they are not aggressive. It is not necessary to control them.” Your photos are so lovely, we are posting all of them.
Letter 4 – Black Flower Wasp
Subject: Black large flying insect. Blue wings Location: NSW Australia February 12, 2017 11:14 pm Hey, NSW Australia here. Just found this guy near the door. He is larger than a wasp and smaller than a hornet also has the iridescent type blue wings. Just wondering what he might be… haven’t seen this one before Signature: Regards, andrew Dear Andrew, Though we first located this image on FlickR, we are much more comfortable informing you that this is a Black Flower Wasp, Austroscolia soror, since the same image is posted to iNaturalist. The species is also pictured on the Atlas of Living Australia and Encyclopedia of Life. The Black Flower Wasp is a member of the family Scoliidae, and females withing the family prey on the grubs of Scarab Beetles by laying their eggs, so the beetle grubs provide a live food source for the developing wasp larvae.
Letter 5 – Blue Flower Wasp
Black bodied, blue winged wasp like bug Hey bug people, I’ve found lots of bugs on your site but this one has got me so far. Lots of these fly around our tomatoes here in Australia. I’ve had tomatoes before but never saw these before. They seemed too big to be a black flower wasp (that and they leave our regular flowers alone). They have bright blue wings and eyes with black bodies. They constantly move so this was a clear a shot as I could get. Thanks Peter Hi Peter, We suspect these are Blue Flower Wasps or Hairy Flower Wasps, Discolia soror, based on images posted to the Geocities Website. They are in the family SCOLIIDAE Scoliidae. Adult Blue Flower Wasps are nectar feeders and the larvae feed on Scarab Beetle Grubs. The female wasp locates the beetle grubs in the soil, digs down and lays an egg on the grub. The Csiro Website (which refers to this species as the Black Flower Wasp) indicates: “Black flower wasps are solitary and do not make communal nests. However, in mid to late summer, they often form small swarms flying low over an area of turf, a compost heap or around a shrub. The adults can also be seen taking nectar from flowers.”
Letter 6 – Blue Flower Wasp from Australia
Is this a wasp ?? February 12, 2010 Hi , I live in Mornington , Victoria . Australia, and for the last month or so we have had these insects flying around the garden , I think that they may be some kind of wasp ? If possible could you identify them for me please and tell me if I should be wary of them ? Thanks for your help. Ingrid Mornington , south of Melbourne , Victoria Australia Dear Ingrid, This beautiful wasp is Discolia soror, and the common name is listed as either the Blue Flower Wasp, Black Flower Wasp or Hairy Flower Wasp depending upon the author. The adult feeds upon nectar, and the female lays eggs on Scarab Beetle Grubs which are parasitized by the larval wasps.
Letter 7 – Blue Flower Wasp from Australia
Subject: Flying insect Location: Newcastle, NSW. Australia. December 31, 2013 8:07 pm Can you please help me identify this flying insect that has appeared in our garden in the past month (December 2013). There are quite a few of them, and they appear to like burrowing in the soil and lawn. They are not aggressive, but large enough to give you a fright!! Signature: The bugman Happy New Year. This is our first posting of 2014. This is a Blue Flower Wasp, Scolia soror, and we have also seen alternative common names including Black Flower Wasp, Hairy Blue Flower Wasp or Hairy Flower Wasp, depending upon the source. According to the Victoria Museum fact sheet: “These wasps will most likely be seen flying just above ground level and in particular flying near or around compost heaps, wood heaps or dead stumps of trees.” The site goes on to explain: “Adult female flower wasps are designed to dig. They are large and powerful wasps. The female wasps are often seen visiting compost heaps or wood piles or flying around the dead stump of a tree. They are searching for scarab beetle grubs (such as the Christmas beetle group) in the ground and are quite capable of digging into compost heaps or saw-dust of a tree stump to find beetle grubs. …. However, many wasps have developed the technique of paralysing their prey and laying an egg inside the host. The hatched larva then feed inside the living host. Flower wasps are one such group of wasps. Having located a beetle grub, the female stings and lays an egg inside it. The sting from the wasp does not kill the beetle grub but only paralyses it. There is a good reason why the female wasp does not kill the beetle grub. If the sting were to kill the beetle grub, then its tissue would immediately start to rot and decompose. When the wasp egg hatches inside the paralysed beetle grub it is surrounded by living tissue – the food that it needs to eat. The developing wasp larva knows which parts of the beetle grub to eat first to prolong the grub’s life for as long as possible; thus maximizing the chances of complete development of the wasp larva.” We have read that female Blue Flower Wasps are capable of stinging humans, but they rarely do. Carelessly handling a Blue Flower Wasp may result in a sting, but since they do not defend their young, there is little chance of being stung while observing a female in search of food for her offspring.
Letter 8 – Blue Flower Wasp from Australia
Subject: black bug with blue wings Location: Australia March 18, 2014 6:59 pm Hi, I’ve found this wasp-like bug in my back yard. Through searching Google, the great black wasp seems to resemble the most, but I can’t find information of it living in Melbourne, Australia. Signature: Ellie B Dear Ellie B, This impressive wasp is a Blue Flower Wasp, Discolia soror, and as part of a 2010 posting, we wrote: “the common name is listed as either the Blue Flower Wasp, Black Flower Wasp or Hairy Flower Wasp depending upon the author. The adult feeds upon nectar, and the female lays eggs on Scarab Beetle Grubs which are parasitized by the larval wasps” but without citations. This morning we will hunt for some citations. Csiro calls this a Black Flower Wasp, and provides this information: “The adult females are large and powerful wasps and are designed to dig. They burrow into the soil to locate scarab grubs (from beetles such as the Christmas beetle), which they sting and lay an egg on.” Csiro also indicates: “Female black flower wasps can sting but rarely do, as they are not aggressive. It is not necessary to control them.” The Brisbane Insect website calls this a Blue Hairy Flower Wasp and states: “We sometime see them flying and walking among shrubs searching for prey. They lay eggs on scarab beetle grubs in the soil.” Project Noah uses the name Blue Flower Wasp and The Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales uses the name Blue-Winged Scolia.
Letter 9 – Spider Wasp and Prey from Costa Rica
I sent you a photo of a tarantula and pepsis wasp about a month ago that you put on your site. Today I’m at the same location, and this wasp was dragging this spider. The wasp unlike the large black pepsis, is smaller and has a red body with dark blue wings. The spider too is smaller and less hairy. Is this one just a smaller version of the tarantula? Is this another type of wasp? Thank you for this great site. It’s been very helpful to me.
We have similarly colored Spider Wasps in the U.S. in the genus Tachypompilus. The spider appears to be a Huntsman Spider.
Letter 10 – Digger Wasp from Costa Rica
What’s this wasp? Velvet Ant maybe? Location: Parque Nacional Cahuita, Caribbean Coast, Costa Rica, Central America August 2, 2011 4:01 pm The wasp(?) was found on the South Caribbean coast in Costa Rica (near Parque Nacional Cahuita). Estimated size is around 2 inches. Beyond that, all I know is what it’s in the picture. Wings: Black Abdomen: Orange with black patches Surface: Furry! At first glance, I was assuming it was some sort of parasitic wasp, perhaps a spider-killer. But the only spider-killing wasps I’ve seen have orange antennae and black bodies. It’s also got a proboscis like a moth or butterfly. I’m only assuming it’s a wasp based on wings and general body shape. I’ve tried coming the web for pictures of anything like it, but I’ve come up almost empty. The closest match I can find is a male Velvet Ant. http://bugguide.net/node/view/419215/bgimage Any thoughts? Thanks! Signature: Cheers, Alex H Hi Alex, This is one of the Digger Wasps in the family Scoliidae. Though we don’t know the exact species, it looks quite similar to this image of Campsomeris tolteca from BugGuide. Digger Wasps parasitize the grubs of large Scarab Beetles.
Letter 11 – Vespid Wasp Nest from Costa Rica
Subject: bees Location: costa rica May 19, 2013 2:07 pm Hi! we saw these nest of bees, in Costa Rica. We saw very well the activity inside the nest! Any idea about the species? Not easy, I can believe! thanks fred Signature: fred from belgium Hi Fred, These are not bees. They are Paper Wasps in the genus Polistes. We found a matching photo on Nature.Com on a page entitled An Introduction to Eusociality, but they are only identified to the genus level. Correction courtesy of Cesar Crash via comment: Polybia species Thanks to Cesar’s comment, we looked up his link to the Animal Communications Project where we scrutized the photo of the Polybia Wasps. We did a web search of the genus and found BugEric which mentions they are Vespid Wasps. Eric writes: “Thanks to Google image searches, I eventually pinpointed the wasp as the species Polybia emaciata. It is one of the few social vespid wasps that builds its nest of mud instead of paper. The more durable nature of the mud envelope allows the wasps to “hunker down” or flee when faced with a potential attack by a vertebrate predator. Contrast this behavior with the violent attacks launched by social wasps that build relatively flimsy nests of paper.” Thanks to Eric’s comments, we have moved this to the Hornets and Yellow Jackets category.
Letter 12 – Wasp from Costa Rica
Subject: Large blue ant Location: Cartago, Costa Rica March 8, 2014 6:21 pm I have been unable to find any information about this ant that I photographed (somewhat poorly, I’m afraid, near Cartago, Costa Rica. I hope you can help. Signature: Tica 2014 Dear Tica 2014, This is not an ant, but rather, it is a Wasp, though we are unsure of its identity. Ants and Wasps are in the same insect order, Hymemoptera, and bees and Sawflies are also similarly classified. We will continue to research this and hopefully we will be able to provide you with an identification.
Letter 13 – Warrior Wasps from Costa Rica
Subject: Evil Looking Wasp Location: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica November 10, 2014 2:23 pm Hi There, We are on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and are planning on moving into a new apartment. These wasps were seen building a nest on one of the poles, and I’m just wondering a) what are they? b) is their sting as painful as it looks? c) how would we exterminate them? Thanks so much! Signature: Concerned in Costa Rica Dear Concerned in Costa Rica, Regarding c): We do not provide extermination advice. We thought your wasps looked like Paper Wasps in the genus Polistes, and following that lead, we came to the Photo Gallery of Eusocial Paper Wasp Genera and Research page where Polistes atterimus (Monteverde, Costa Rica) is described as being “mimics of Synoeca septentrionalis,” so we followed up on that species and genus. Of the genus, we learned on the same page, the Photo Gallery of Eusocial Paper Wasp Genera and Research, that “These wasps are infamous for their painful stings and ferocious colony defense. When mildly disturbed, they produce an ominous rushing sound, with synchronous rhythm, by rubbing against their corrugated nest paper. Watch out.” We found an image of Synoeca cyanea on FlickR of the start of a new colony that looks remarkably like your image. Though we typically do not quote from Wikipedia, we did learn there that members of the genus Synoeca, “Commonly known as warrior wasps or drumming wasps, these insects are known for aggressive behavior, a threat display consisting of multiple insects guarding a nest beating their wings in a synchronized fashion, and an extremely painful sting. Synoeca is one of only three insect types (the others being the bullet ant and the tarantula hawk) to receive a rating of 4 or higher on insect sting pain indices such as the Schmidt sting pain index.” That takes care of your questions a) and b), and we found further support on the Vespa bicolor page where it states of the genus Synoeca: “These wasps are known for their aggression, and also for their extremely painful stings (possibly most painful of any social wasps!) Upon any threat near the nest, the workers are able to produce sound by “drumming” on or rubbing against the inner surface of the nest envelope. If the disturbance continues, the wasps rush out and sometimes pursue the intruder for long distances.” Thank you very much for the information. I have passed it along to my landlord 🙂