bee on lavender

Bees vs Wasps vs Hornets: What are the Differences?

Differentiating bees, wasps, and hornets can be quite challenging. As most of us keep our distance from these buzzing, stinging, and biting creatures, we don’t really know what they look like, nor do we understand their lifestyle patterns.

There are, in fact, many physical and behavioral characteristics that distinguish them from one another. Since these winged insects are common in North Carolina, it’s important to understand their features and behaviors in order to properly identify them and protect yourself, your loved ones, and your home. Thus, we provide the ultimate guide on bees vs wasps vs hornets below.

What Are Bees?

Members of the Apidae family, bees are flying insects that collect nectar and pollen. As pollinators, bees are a vital component of our ecosystem that provides us with goods such as oils and raw materials along with food and shelter for animals.

How Many Species of Bees Are There?

There are almost 200,000 species of bees in the world. According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, there are about 500 species of bees in North Carolina. The most common types of bees in this state and the U.S. are carpenter bees, honey bees, and bumblebees.

What Are Wasps?

Part of the order Hymenoptera and suborder Apocrita, wasps provide important ecological services like bees do. As predators and pollinators, social wasps protect gardens and farm crops by mitigating pests (greenflies, caterpillars, etc.). Moreover, like bees, they are pollinators, so they also help keep our ecosystem diverse and thriving.

Types of Wasps in North Carolina

Yellowjackets as well as black and yellow mud daubers are the most common wasps in North Carolina. And most recently, cicada killer wasps have been on the rise. There are two types of wasps (solitary and social) in terms of their nesting and living situation, which we will dive into more later.

What Are Hornets?

Hornets are a specific type of wasp and the largest kind of the eusocial (extensive social system) wasps. Hornets are beneficial to our ecosystem, as they control spiders and insect pests and pollinate flowers.

Most Common Hornet in North Carolina

The most common type of hornet in North Carolina is the bald-faced hornet.

What Do They Look Like?

When it comes to physical characteristics, bees, wasps, and hornets have differing features.

Bees

Though there are several different types of bees, bees are generally furry creatures. Their hair not only regulates their body temperature, but also serves as an automatic pollen collector. Pollen grains stick to their hairs right away, making their pollen-collecting process very easy and efficient.

In terms of size, they generally have a larger and rounder body than wasps do. Since there are several different types of bees, there are slight variations of physical features across these types. For example:

  • Bumblebees are larger in circumference and have more hair on their bodies than honey bees do.
  • Honey bee wings are more translucent than bumblebee wings.

Not all bees are black and yellow. Though bumblebees and honey bees may carry these traditional colors or dark-to-light striations, male carpenter bees are orange to yellow and the females are completely black. Moreover, other species of bees come in colors such as white, red, green, and blue.

Wasps

Though wasps belong to the same order of insects as bees, they are not the same. Some wasps such as the yellowjacket and mud dauber are easily confused as bees, as they have black and yellow coloring.

Wasps are distinguishable from bees by their pointed lower abdomens and their narrow waist, or petiole. They are not furry—they are smooth and hairless. In addition, when they fly, you can see their legs dangling, whereas for bees, their legs are tucked in, so they are not visible at all when they are in the air.

Hornets

Like wasps, hornets have a more slender body than bees do that narrows at the waist area. Hornets are typically black and white or black and yellow. And though the black and yellow may cause people to perceive them as bees, the yellow hues on bees are more golden. Bald-faced hornets are generally black with white patterns on their faces and bodies.

If hornets are a type of wasp, how can you tell if an insect is one or the other? Not only are hornets typically smaller, but they are generally rounder and fatter than your general wasp. They also keep their legs tucked in when flying whereas wasps leave them hanging visibly.

Diet

What Do Bees Eat?

Bees are vegetarians, eating pollen and nectar. Honey bees also feed on honey during the winter.

What Do Wasps Eat?

Wasps are omnivores. In addition to feeding on pollen and nectar, wasps also eat caterpillars and flies. By eating these small insects, they are managing the pest population, ultimately helping plants and crops thrive.

What Do Hornets Eat?

Hornets are omnivores, eating tree sap and flies, bees, and other insects.

Biting vs. Stinging

When thinking about bee vs wasp vs hornet, it’s helpful to think about the level of aggression these creatures carry. These three creatures possess different behavioral patterns when it comes to biting and stinging; some only sting, some only bite, and some do both.

Bees

While honey bees and carpenter bees will generally leave you alone unless you bother them, bumblebees are more aggressive. They are known to chase people for over one-quarter of a mile.

How Many Times Can a Bee Sting?

Female bees generally carry stingers, and they can sting you as many times as they like. Honey bees, in particular, die shortly after stinging humans. Their stingers, which carry barbs, are attached to their abdomen. When they sting, the stinger gets left in your skin and is torn from their stomach.

Wasps

Wasps can sting or bite. The species of wasps that do bite rarely bite humans; they usually bite smaller insects. Female wasps are the only ones that have stingers. Wasps will generally only sting if they feel threatened.

Can Wasps Sting More Than Once?

If a wasp stings you, it can sting you several times. Their stinger is smooth, so it can easily pierce through your skin many times. And unlike honey bees, wasps do not lose their stingers and do not die upon attacking. Wasp stings are alkaline and may produce different effects than bee stings which are acidic.

Hornets

Hornets are known to be especially aggressive when their nest sites are threatened. Though both wasps and hornets are generally known to be more hostile than bees, bald-faced hornets are specifically more aggressive than wasps. These particular creatures will sting even if there isn’t much of a threat posed.

How Many Times Can a Hornet Sting?

Hornet's stingers are retractable, which means they can be used to attack you multiple times.

Nesting Patterns

Bees

The ways bees nest and reproduce vary across the almost 200,000 types of species. We will overview the nesting and lifecycle of the three types of bees that are common in North Carolina and the U.S.

1. Where Do Bumblebees Nest?

Bumblebee nests are located underground, particularly in abandoned holes made by larger animals. These nests are waxy cells that consist of honey pots for feeding.

Queens hibernate on the ground’s surface or in small holes beneath the ground, emerging in spring to create new colonies. The queen lays her eggs which turn into either future queens or workers that help maintain the nest. Unfertilized eggs become drones or males.

2. How Do Honey Bees Nest?

Honey bees establish their nest out of wax, which is created when a worker bee converts the sugar inside her body. The sugar comes out through pores on her sides which she chews, mixing it with her saliva to make the substance elastic.

Most of the hive is a honeycomb that stores a bee’s eggs, larvae, pollen, and honey. During the winter, the queen lays eggs in each cell of the honeycomb, forming a new colony. Fertilized eggs become female worker bees while unfertilized eggs become male bees.

3. Where Do Carpenter Bees Nest?

Carpenter bees create nesting galleries in wood. The bee creates a hole that goes into a tunnel that extends several feet.

Like bumblebees, carpenter bees, take shelter during the winter and lay eggs in the late spring to early summer. Both males and females hibernate until the following spring when they seek pollen and a mate.

Wasp

Unlike bumblebees and honey bees that build their nests from waxy substances, wasps create their nests from papery material such as wood fibers. There are two types of groups within the wasp world and they are divided based on their nesting preferences and locations.

1. How Do Solitary Wasps Nest?

The nesting habits are diverse—some solitary wasps nest underground and some nest in sheltered places such as under eaves and porch ceilings. The mud dauber wasp, for example, constructs mud nests. They look like mud tubes that are about one inch long. However, the majority of wasps are solitary, meaning that they live alone. They build isolated nests with paralyzed insects or spiders as a source of food for their young.

Though they may live in communal nests with other solitary wasps, they are each responsible for caring for their offspring. Thus, they are not eusocial insects like bees, where you have a colony of creatures that each hold specific responsibilities.

2. Where Do Social Wasps Nest?

The location of the social wasp nests depends on the species, but they typically lay their nests in cavities in soil, tree trunks, hanging leaves, branches, or eaves of homes or buildings. As their name indicates, social wasps live in colonies. They have a caste system where there is one or several queens (who are fertilized), a few drones (males), and workers (sterile females).

The queen creates the colony during springtime by building a small nest and laying her eggs. These eggs hatch fertile females, or new queens, males, and workers. The workers enlarge the paper-like nest which is usually made of chewed up and regurgitated wood. You can think of this as a kind of paper mache. Along with nest maintenance, workers look after the queen’s eggs and feeding.

Unlike honey bees that do not hibernate, queen wasps hibernate during the winter season and build a new nest and wasp generation the following spring. The males and workers usually die over the winter.

Hornets

Hornets make their nests from wood pulp that hangs from tree limbs. Like wasps, hornet nests are paper-like and abandoned during the winter seasons, with only the young queens and their eggs surviving by living under tree barks or rooftops.

When spring comes around, the queen will build a new nest where her young will become workers, and she will work on breeding a new generation of queens and males.

Treatment and Protection

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,109 deaths occurred between 2000 to 2017 from bee, wasp, and hornet stings, which is an average of 62 deaths per year. Approximately eighty percent of those deaths were among males.

Symptoms of a Sting

When stung, the stinger for wasps and hornets releases chemical toxins that cause pain, redness, and swelling. Some people carry severe allergies to these toxins and can go into anaphylactic shock. These shock symptoms usually occur within minutes of being stung and can include:

  • Difficulty breathing, wheezing
  • Low blood pressure, rapid pulse
  • Rapid pulse
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Dizziness, fainting

How to Treat a Sting

Many people who are already aware of their severe allergies carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) with them to treat the sting. If you or someone you know goes into anaphylactic shock, be sure to:

  • Administer the EpiPen right away if you or the person you are helping has one.
  • Call 911.
  • Elevate their legs to keep their blood flowing to their vital organs.
  • Give them CPR if they aren’t breathing until the emergency team arrives.
  • If you are fortunate enough to only receive mild symptoms, you should take the following actions:
  • Move to a safe area away from the insects.
  • If the stinger is inside you, remove it.
  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Apply a cool compress to help with the swelling. Do not apply ice directly onto your skin.
  • Take an antihistamine and use a hydrocortisone cream to relieve any itching.
  • Be sure to keep the bite area elevated. For example, if your finger was stung, be sure to raise your hand above your heart. If your foot was stung, keep it elevated by resting it on a pillow, above the ground.

Dangers of Pesticides

Many people tend to take the DIY route when handling bee, wasp, or hornet nests by using pesticides. This is not recommended as pesticides cannot eliminate a nest of wasps or hornets. Thus, you’ll only be harming the environment. Studies have shown that excessive use of pesticides damages biodiversity and human health.

Do Pesticides Kill Bees?

While pesticides do work for killing bees, remember, these creatures are an essential part of our environment and biodiversity. Bees support the development of trees, flowers, and other plants that allow diverse species to exist. Since 2006, commercial beekeepers have reported losses averaging 29 to 45 percent every year. Pesticides, fertilizers, and heavy land use have been primary drivers for the decline.

Contact the Bee, Hornet, & Wasp Control Specialists

You shouldn’t try to handle an infestation on your own, as you may very well get stung. Invading bee, wasp, and hornet territories threaten and anger them. It’s best to consult with a professional pest control business for bee, wasp, and hornet issues around your property. 

QualityPro and GreenPro certified, Sage Pest Control is here to combat wasp and bee issues in the Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh, North Carolina areas using environmentally-friendly products. Our goal is to keep bees, wasps, and hornets from affecting your property and keeping your family and customers safe. Contact us today.

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