Bees vs wasps: what’s the difference?

Monday 18th September 2023

…blog by Nikki Banfield, Buglife Communications Officer.  Originally written for BBC Wildlife in May 2023.

When you hear the word “wasp” what thoughts pop into your head?  Yellow and black, angry, buzzy thing that’s determined to ruin your picnic?  A foe to fear, to dislike, to avoid at all costs?  You’re probably visualizing the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) which as the name would suggest is the most commonly found wasp here in the UK.

What about “bee”?  Maybe your thoughts are a little less negative; a bit more positive?  Useful, fuzzy, brown or black & yellow buzzy thing that makes honey and pollinates plants?  Friend rather than foe?  They might still scare you a little but they do good and we need them. With your mind’s eye you’re likely seeing a Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera) or a fuzzy bumblebee of some description; probably the Buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) or White-tailed (Bombus lucorum) Bumblebee as they are amongst the most common seen in the UK.

Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera) © Jurgen Mangelsdorf (Flickr, CC)
Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera) © Jurgen Mangelsdorf (Flickr, CC)

According to a 2021 YouGov poll wasps are the 2nd most disliked creepy-crawly here in the UK, just being pipped to the post by spiders.  Whilst bees didn’t get a mention in this specific survey, other surveys show that a similar percentage of adults dislike or fear them too.  1/4 or 1/5 adults here in the UK dislike or fear both bees and/or wasps.

But what if I told you, maybe, just maybe our perceptions are all wrong?  Both species may have earned themselves a bad reputation, one more so than the other, but these insects play hugely important roles in the ecosystem.

In addition to this a lot of what we think we know about both bees and wasps is either wrong, or only partially true.

As a starter for ten, did you know that not all bees or wasps are black and yellow?

Blue Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa caerulea) © budak (Flickr, CC)
Blue Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa caerulea) © budak (Flickr, CC)

The Smeathman’s Furrow Bee (Lasioglossum smeathmanellum) is one of four metallic green Lasioglossum bees found in the UK, which in itself is far from black and yellow.  But, if you travel further afield, to south-east Asia, you’ll even discover a blue bee!  Yes, you read that right, an actual blue bee, the Blue Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa caerulea).

Similarly, the Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ruddii) is also far from black and yellow.  It’s a tiny metallic red and green species of cuckoo wasp; a solitary species that feeds on nectar as an adult but whose young (larvae) parasitise other wasp and bee species.  Again, travel further afield to the eastern United States and you’ll find the beautifully furry, black and red Eastern Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) which, despite its name, is a parasitoid wasp and the females have no wings!

In the UK there are around 250 different species of bee and 9000 different species of wasp and, as you would expect with such a large number, they are a variety of different sizes, shapes and colours and exhibit a vast array of foraging, feeding and breeding behaviours.

Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ruddii) © Roger Key
Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ruddii) © Roger Key

Before we focus on the differences between bees and wasps, let’s have a look at some of the similarities.

Bees and wasps are members of the order Hymenoptera, and as such share many characteristics and features.  Visually they can look very similar and are easy to get confused; wasps can look like bees and bees can look like wasps.

Both bees and wasps can be classified as social or solitary, additionally many solitary species are also described as cuckoos (they use other species to complete their lifecycles, particularly in terms of caring for/raising young and pirating food), i.e. the Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebee (Bombus bohemicus) and the Cuckoo Wasp (Vespula austriaca)

Social bee societies are generally better researched and understood than social wasps, but both consist of a Queen (the only sexually developed female), Workers (sexually under developed females who do all the “heavy lifting”) and Drones (males, whose sole purpose is to fertilize the Queen’s eggs); For wasps the mated Queen will hibernate during the winter months and she is the only wasp that will survive more than a year as a result.  Similarly, mated bumblebee Queens will hibernate during the winter months alone and the rest of the colony will die off.  In contrast a Queen honeybee will over winter with her Workers who continue to feed, keep her warm and protect her.  Drones are pushed out at the end of summer in order to conserve food stores for the honeybee Queen; Drones will inevitably die as a result.

Eastern Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) © Judy Gallagher (Flickr, CC)
Eastern Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) © Judy Gallagher (Flickr, CC)

Neither male bees, nor wasps, can sting.  It is just the females of each species that possess the ability to sting.

Solitary bees and wasps will nest in a variety of different ways, either singly or in aggregations (still alone but in the vicinity of others) including: by digging burrows, hijacking others burrows, hiding in hollow plant stems, hiding in holes in wood or buildings, even using empty snail shells.

Both bees and wasps are pollinators.  Bees are recognised by many as such, but wasps less so.  When a wasp travels from plant to plant looking for nectar to feed on they also carry pollen with them.  Wasps generally have much less hair than bees, so don’t carry as much pollen, but they still pollinate.

Now we’ve explored some of the similarities let’s look at some of the differences…

Bees are essentially vegetarian, mostly feeding on nectar and pollen which they collect from flowers, or steal from other bees, particularly here in the UK.  In contrast most wasps tend to be classed as omnivores feeding on nectar and sugars from rotting fruit, but also hunting other insects and spiders.

As mentioned above, not all bees and wasps can sting, but of those that can it’s generally understood that most bees can only sting once, whereas a wasp can sting multiple times; this is due to the design of their “sting”.  Bees such as Western Honeybees have barbed or hooked stings which get caught in their victims whereas a Common Wasp has a smooth sting which doesn’t get caught, allowing them to sting more than once.

Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) © Sid Mosdell (Flickr, CC)
Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) © Sid Mosdell (Flickr, CC)

Bees make honey.  While not all bees make honey, more than 90% of the bee species don’t, there are a number of species that do.  Those known as honeybees are as you would expect are amongst the most prolific but other species do too; like some of the bumblebees and stingless bees.

Let’s dig a little deeper…   

The eagle-eyed amongst you will note I said bees “mostly” feed on nectar and pollen and wasps “hunt” other insects and spiders.

Cannibalism has been recorded in honeybees to protect the nest from threats, such as workers gone rogue and laying eggs, or during times of pollen shortage and to control brood rearing ratios; bumblebees have also been observed feeding on the carcasses of dead animals.  In addition there is a small group of South American bees known as Vulture or Carrion Bees who actively feed on rotting meat.

In contrast, adult wasps, both social and solitary, only feed on sugars; these sugars can come from flower nectar, honeydew produced by aphids or the wasp larvae themselves who produce a sugary liquid which the adult wasp consumes.  Adult wasps don’t actually eat the prey they capture and kill, they feed it to their young.

Fun fact: each summer social wasps in the UK capture an estimated 14 million kilogrammes of insect prey so they really do a great job of pest control!

Mexican Honey Wasp (Brachygastra mellifica) © Amante Darmanin (Flickr, CC)
Mexican Honey Wasp (Brachygastra mellifica) © Amante Darmanin (Flickr, CC)

If a bee can sting, it can also sting more than once; much will depend on which species it is and what it has stung.  If a bee has a barbed sting it is highly likely it will only sting once and then die as a result, if a bee has a smooth sting it has the ability to escape with its sting intact and therefore sting again.

Making honey isn’t exclusive to bees, some species of wasp make honey too, like the Mexican honey wasps (Brachygastra spp.).  They make it in the same way as honeybees but not in the same quantities, only making enough for their own consumption.

So, if you think about it, bees and wasps aren’t really all that different; the main difference seems to be our perception of their characteristics and their usefulness.  Perceptions which in many instances are built on false or partial information.  Indeed, evidence suggests that bees originally evolved from hunting wasps that lived 120 million years ago and that pollen feeding allowed the bees to adapt and change.

Next time you see a bee or a wasp, why not use the opportunity to take a closer look and learn a little more?  Marvel at their individuality, beauty and ingenuity and consider how different life on Earth would be without them buzzing around.

Want to know more about wasps in the UK?  Check out this fantastic webinar from entoL!VE featuring Professor Seirian Sumner (University College London) aka “Wasp Woman” looking at the Big Wasp Survey: Investigating Social Wasp Populations Through Citizen Science.

Main Image Credit: Bee wolf © Kevin Sawford (Luminar Bug Photography Awards 2020 Flies, Bees, Ants and Wasps 3rd Place winner)