How to Identify Bees and Wasps

Learn how to spot the difference between a friendly bee and a vicious wasp in your backyard this summer.

  • A Melissodes bee foraging on a sunflower (Helianthus) with a large pollen load stuffed into the pollen-collecting hairs (scopa) on the back legs.
    Photo courtesy of Princeton University Press
  • This image shows some common flies (left), bees (middle), and wasps (right). You can see that the three groups commonly look a lot alike and that it takes an experienced eye to see the differences. Notice that all the flies have triangular heads (when viewed from above) with short little antennae and just one wing on each side of the body. Wasps and bees look even more similar; look for rough integument (skin) on wasps, with many tiny pits, as well as antennae that commonly are very close together on the face, and spindly legs.
    Photo courtesy of Princeton University Press
  • “The Bees in Your Backyard” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril explores the 4,000 types of bees found in North America, many in your own backyard.
    Photo courtesy of Princeton University Press

The Bees in Your Backyard (Princeton University Press, 2015) by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril describes the natural history of the bees all around North America, and their role in our ecosystem as pollinators. Wilson and Messinger Carril go through 4,000 species of North American bees, with over 900 color photos throughout the book. The following excerpt is their guide to distinguishing bees form wasps and flies.

Even though bees are common in most neighborhoods, frequently seen on hikes, and ubiquitous residents of city parks, it is hard to tell whether an insect buzzing nearby is a bee or something else. It’s no wonder people get confused. Because bees sting, resembling one is a successful strategy for vulnerable insects, and many a bug has evolved the appearance of a buzzing bee; however, a keen eye and a little practice are all you need to see past the ruse.

Bees and wasps are the most similar in appearance, and they are the most easily confused. It is not uncommon to hear complaints about the “bee” that landed on somebody’s hamburger at a recent family picnic. Stories of the pesky nest dangling from a branch in the backyard abound. Hikers complain about the horrible buzzing creatures that swarmed from a log they used as a backrest halfway up the trail. And every summer, someone is attacked by “ground bees” while mowing the lawn. In all cases, the annoying insect was probably not a bee but a wasp. Wasps (including hornets and yellow jackets) and bees are close relatives, sharing in common a grandmother 100 million “greats” ago. In some instances the two are so similar that even trained scientists have difficulty distinguishing them. The bee called Neolarra, for example, was thought to be a wasp by the first researchers to see it. It didn’t help that the bee was dead and stuck to a pin, because the most telling differences between bees and wasps are their mannerisms and day-to-day behaviors.

Most important among these behavioral differences is that bees are pollen eaters. Wasps, in contrast, are meat eaters. While both visit flowers for nectar (the “energy drink” of the insect world), bees also visit flowers in order to collect pollen for their young. On the contrary, wasps pursue other insects and drag them back to the nest for their offspring to devour. This one dietary difference has resulted in very different bearings. To aid in the gathering of pollen, bees are usually hairy (pollen sticks to hair), and many species look like cotton candy with wings. Rooting around in flowers is messy business, and a few minutes rummaging among floral parts leaves a bee coated in hundreds of tiny grains of pollen. Using her many legs, the bee grooms herself, wiping all the pollen to the back of her body, where she stuffs it into the spaces between special stiff bristles on her legs or belly. These tufts or masses of special hairs are called scopa. Quite the opposite of the furry bee, wasps look like Olympic swimmers, devoid of all hair, skinny-waisted, and with long spindly legs.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Some bees have scant hair on their bodies and are wasp-thin. In these cases, look for silvery or golden hairs on the face; wasps tend to have glistening mugs, while bee hairs don’t shimmer from any angle. Behavior, as mentioned above, can be telling, too. Bees spend more time on flowers than wasps do; wasps in contrast are more likely to raid your backyard barbeque in search of animal proteins accidentally left on a plate.

Since bees and wasps are difficult to distinguish, many stung victims often blame the hapless bee for crimes not committed. The culprit in these cases is likely a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellow jacket. All live socially in hives. Ever the opportunists, these wasps take advantage of the many resources found in urban environments, often building their homes along fences, under eaves and decks, attached to windowsills, or in various holes or cavities. All three will collect fibers from dead wood and plants and then use their saliva to make a papier-mâché house of sorts. These nests often bear a strong resemblance to the honey bee hives depicted in Winnie the Pooh books, and it is thus not surprising that many people think these wasps are bees. These kinds of wasps also enjoy taking a bite of your grilled chicken back to the nest to feed their offspring, or stopping on the lip of your glass of root beer for a sugary sip. The gangly, thin-waisted, and hairless body gives them away as wasps and not bees, however. In addition, the wings of these wasps in particular are folded in a distinctive way. Rather than lying flat across their back (thorax) so they overlap over the abdomen, their wings run as parallel dark strips on either side of the thorax.

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