How to Tell a Bee from a Wasp

Solitary digger wasp on Mallow flower.

Michel Rauch / Getty Images

Some species of bees and wasps look very similar. Both can sting, both can fly and both belong to the same order of insects, Hymenoptera. The larvae of both look like maggots. They also have many differences, too, in terms of aggressiveness, body characteristics, food types, and sociability.

Close Relatives

Bees and wasps belong to the same suborder, Apocrita, which is characterized by a common narrow waist. It is this thin junction between the thorax and the abdomen that gives these insects a slender-looking waist appearance. However, look closely and you'll see that the abdomen and thorax of a bee is more round, whereas a wasp has a more cylindrical body.​​


If you've been stung out of the blue, it was probably a wasp. In general, neither bee nor wasp will go looking for humans or other large animals to attack. Bees and wasps sting humans and other animals only for self-defense or to protect their colonies.

Compared to wasps, however, bees are less aggressive. The bee's stinger mechanism is strictly for defense, and most honeybees will die after stinging a predator or other threatening being. That is because bee stingers are barbed, and stay in the target of the sting attack. The loss of its stinger causes bodily injury to the bee that eventually kills it.

On the other hand, a wasp is easily provoked and is more aggressive by nature. A wasp stings to capture and kill prey. Wasps can sting a target multiple times since its stinger is smooth and slips out of its target; wasps can also sting while you try to brush it away. And, when a wasp is harmed or threatened, it releases hormones to mark the target for its family swarm to attack.

Foods of Choice

Bees are vegetarian and are pollinators. They sip nectar from flowers and can also drink water and bring water back to the hive to clean it. They do not kill and consume other insects.

Wasps are more predatory than bees, hunting and killing prey including caterpillars and flies. However, wasps do sip on nectar too. They are attracted to the smell of human food, such as sugary beverages and beer, which is why you find them buzzing around.

Bees also generate edible and attractive foods suitable for humans and other mammals. Bees make honey, honeycombs of (relatively) edible wax and royal jelly. Royal jelly is a special food high in proteins and carbohydrates which is secreted by worker bees and fed to all larvae and queen bees — in fact, queen bees only become queens after having been fed royal jelly.

Some wasp species do make a kind of honey, which they also store in their nests to feed their larvae, but with much less output than bee honey.

Home and Social Structure

Another key difference is how bees and wasps live. Bees are highly social creatures. They live in nests or colonies with up to 75,000 members, all in support of a single queen bee and the colony. Different species of bees construct different types of nests. Many species build hives, a mathematically intricate structure made of a densely packed matrix of hexagonal cells made of beeswax, called a honeycomb. The bees use the cells to store food, such as honey and pollen, and all to house the next generations' eggs, larvae, and pupae.

Stingless bee species (Meliponidae) build bag-like homes without precise structures, and often establish nests in caves, rock cavities, or hollow trees. Honeybees don't hibernate over the winter — although the queen lives for three years or so, the worker bees all die off when winter comes.

For the most part, wasps are social, too, but their colonies never have more than 10,000 members. Some species choose to be solitary and live entirely on their own. Unlike honey bees, wasps have no wax-producing glands, so their nests are made from a paper-like substance built of redigested wood pulp. Solitary wasps can create a small mud nest, attach it to any surface, and make that its base of operations.

The nests of some social wasps, such as hornets, are first constructed by the queen and reach about the size of a walnut. Once the sterile daughters of the queen wasp come of age, they take over construction and grow the nest into a paper ball. The size of a nest is generally a good indicator of the number of female workers in the colony. Social wasp colonies often have populations exceeding several thousand female workers and at least one queen. Wasp queens hibernate over the winter and emerge during the spring.

Quick Look at Apparent Differences

Characteristic Bee Wasp
Stinger Honeybees: Barbed stinger is pulled out from bee, which kills the bee

Other bees: Live to sting again
Small stinger that slips out from victim and wasp lives to sting again
Body Rounder body usually appears hairy Usually slender and smooth body
Legs Flat, wide and hairy legs Smooth, round and waxy legs
Colony Size As many as 75,000 No more than 10,000
Nest Material Self-generated beeswax Self-generated paper from wood pulp or mud
Nest Structure Hexagonal matrix or bag-shaped Ball-shaped or stacked cylinders


Downing, H. A., and R. L. Jeanne. "Nest Construction by the Paper Wasp, Polistes: A Test of Stigmergy Theory." Animal Behaviour 36.6 (1988): 1729-39. Print.

Hunt, James H., et al. "Nutrients in Social Wasp (Hymenoptera: Vespidae, Polistinae) Honey." Annals of the Entomological Society of America 91.4 (1998): 466-72. Print.

Resh, Vincent H. and Ring T. Carde. Encyclopedia of Insects, 2nd edition. 2009. Print.

Rossi, A. M., and J. H. Hunt. "Honey Supplementation and Its Developmental Consequences: Evidence for Food Limitation in a Paper Wasp, Polistes Metricus." Ecological Entomology 13.4 (1988): 437-42. Print.

Triplehorn, Charles A., and Norman F. Johnson. Borror and Delong's Introduction to the Study of Insects. 7th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2004. Print.

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Your Citation
Hadley, Debbie. "How to Tell a Bee from a Wasp." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hadley, Debbie. (2020, August 27). How to Tell a Bee from a Wasp. Retrieved from Hadley, Debbie. "How to Tell a Bee from a Wasp." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).