Wasps, Bees, and Hornets: What's the Difference? (2023)

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All “bees” are not created equal. Bees, wasps, and hornets may look alike and belong to the same order of insects called Hymenoptera, but they are different insects. How can you tell the difference between a bee, a wasp, and a hornet? Let’s take alook!


Bees and wasps took separate evolutionary paths over 100,000,000 years ago. Bees are vegetarians, collecting pollen to feed their young, while wasps and hornets are carnivores, feeding on otherinsects. The main thing that they do have in common is that only females cansting.

What’s the Difference Between Wasps, Bees, andHornets?


All hornets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets. In the U.S., we have no native hornets. Our main hornet is the European hornet which was introduced intoNew York in 1840. It looks like a large yellowjacket—about ¾ to 1½ inches long—and nests in the ground or in hollowtrees.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets: What's the Difference? (1)The bald-faced hornet isn’t a hornet at all; it’s a type of paperwasp.

Another “hornet” we commonly encounteris the bald-faced hornet, a type of paper wasp closely related to the yellowjacket.They are black with white markings on their face and abdomen. You have probably seen their huge, gray, basketball-sized nests swinging high in atree.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets: What's the Difference? (2)The bald-faced hornet constructs a huge papery nest everyseason.

A new hornet that was recently introduced to the west coast is getting a lot of press these days. The Asian giant hornet is also called the “murder hornet” for the way they attack honey bee colonies, killing the bees by ripping off their heads, eating the honey, and stealing the larva to feed to their own young. They are the giants of the wasp world, measuring 2 inches long. In Japan, they are called sparrow wasps since they resemble small birds in flight. Their sting is very painful to humans and about 50 unlucky people a year are killed by the deadly neurotoxin contained in theirvenom.


Although there are many solitary wasps such as digger wasps and mud daubers, most wasps are considered social, meaning that they live in colonies with a queen, female worker bees, and drones, like honeybees. Solitary wasps nest in the ground or in natural cavities, while social wasps attach papery nests made from chewed fibers to tree limbs or the eaves of yourhouse.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets: What's the Difference? (3)Honeycomb structure of a large, above-ground paper wasp nest. Although they look like yellowjackets, they are not! Yellowjackets are muchsmaller.

The yellowjacketis a social wasp that will nest above or below ground. In the fall, all the social wasps die off—except for the fertilized queens. They overwinter inprotected spots such as hollow logs, under loose tree bark, or in a soil cavity, and emerge in the spring to start a new colony. Solitary wasps depend on their larvae to mature in spring and start a newgeneration.

Are Hornets and Wasps “BadBugs”?

No! Wasps are very important, playing a vital ecological role controlling pests. Social wasps are predators, collectinginsects such as caterpillars, grubs, grasshoppers, aphids, and flies, which are stung, paralyzed, and put into the egg chambers for newly hatched larvae to eat. Wasps also prey upon spiders; the blue mud dauber’s preferred meal is the blackwidow!

Since wasps prey on some bad bugs, they should be considered beneficial to gardeners. Adults feed on nectar, doing some accidental pollinating at the same time, so they are minorpollinators.

On the other hand, they are drawn to meat and sweets, scavenging whatever they find, so they can be a nuisance for outdoor dining and will congregate around trash cans. If you encounter them, don’t swat at them or act in an aggressive manner or you risk being stung. They will also sting to protect their hive. If you should accidentally mow over a ground nest—run! Unlike honey bees, who can only sting once, wasps are capable of stinging multipletimes.


Bees eat pollen and nectar, feeding it to their young. Thismakesthem importantpollinators.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets: What's the Difference? (4)This hairy bee is covered withpollen.

Beeslook furry because they are covered with branched, feather-like hairs that pollen clings onto. Bees are not aggressive and only sting in self defense. In fact, the males do much of the foraging and they have no stinger. With the exception of honey bees and bumblebees, most bees are solitary and live in underground nests. Each female takes care of her own eggs and gathers pollen to feed the larvae when they hatch. There are about 4,000 species of bees native to the US and Canada. (For more about them, see our Native Bees article)

Identifying at aGlance

  • Bees have a wide, hairy body,have stout legs, and lose their stinger when theysting.
  • Wasps and hornets haveskinny bodies with narrow waists.Their bodies are mostlyhairless and can sting multipletimes.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets: What's the Difference? (5)

Of course, there are many kinds of bees. Most of us grew up learning about the sophisticated social structures of honey bees and bumblebees, and we’ve come to think that their lifestyle represents all bee behavior. The truth is thatthe world is home to more than 20,000 species of bees, and a whopping 90% of them do not live together inhives.

Our native solitary bees—such as mason bees and leafcutter bees—which are most vital to our flowers and food. Learn more about these amazing heroes of pollination—and see how to bring these docile native bees to yourgarden.


Whether bee, wasp, or hornet, the basic life cycle is the same—egg, larva, pre-pupa, pupa, adult. Fertilized eggs produce female bees, while unfertilized ones produce males. Eggs are placed in individual nest cells and provisioned with a food source for the newly hatched larvae to eat—aloaf made of pollen and nectar for bees or a paralyzed insect forwasps.

Some eggs hatch in a few days, while others wait until next season to emerge. The larvae eat, grow, and molt their skin up to 5 times. The pre-pupal stage can last a long time. An egg laid in the spring can take all summer to reach the pre-pupal stage and then it can stay that way all fall and winter. Some bees remain pre-pupal for several years! The pupa looks like an adult, but is pale in color with no wings or hair. In a short time, it chews its way out of the nest as anadult.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets: What's the Difference? (6)Some wasp larvae in their hexagonalcells.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets areBeneficial

Most bees, wasps, and hornets are beneficial. Both wasps and hornets arereal workhorses for pest management in the garden and farm, feeding on the“bad” insects that destroy crops. In fact, if you were able to see many of their nests, they’re stocked withparalyzed adult grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, andsawflies.

Also, if you look carefully in the garden, wasps very helpful pollinators, too! They are usually solitary and non-aggressive, busily hovering and moving from flower toflower.

None of these beneficial insects should bekilled unless their nest is close to humansand is creating a hazard. For example, we had bald-faced hornets make a nest next to our front door and every time the door opened or closed, they were ready to fight! Needless to say, that nest had to go. We waited until after dark when the bees had all returned to the nest and sprayed an aerosol wasp killer into the entrance hole. After a few days of seeing no activity, we were able to remove thenest.

For ground-nesting wasps and hornets, locate the entrance hole, spray intothe opening, and plug the hole with a large rock. Don’t try to burn or drown a nest with water. That just makes them mad! When attempting any eradication of nests, be sure to dress appropriately, covering your eyes and all bare skin (just in case). Also be sure to have an escape routeplanned!

Otherwise, pause before you kill theseinsects; remember that they are a beneficialpart of ourecosystem and especiallycritical for pest control in our gardens, public lands, andcroplands.


  • Beneficial Insects in theGarden
  • 10 Ways to HelpPollinators
  • All AboutBeekeeping


How do I know if I have wasps or hornets? ›

Wasps Are Brighter, Hornets Are Larger

It can grow to twice the size of a yellow jacket or paper wasp, about 1 inch in length. Hornets tend to have a dull color, mostly brown with yellow stripes or black with a white head (the bald-faced hornet). Yellow jacket wasps are, well, bright yellow and black striped.

Are yellow jackets wasps or hornets? ›

Technically, hornets and yellow jackets are just types of wasps. Whereas bees are herbivores, wasps are omnivorous and will eat meat, spiders, and other insects in addition to plants. Although wasps do help control populations of agricultural pests, in general wasps are far less environmentally beneficial than bees.

Are hornets good for anything? ›

Like most living things on our Earth, hornets have a purpose. They help rid the world of unwanted garden pests – aphids – that damage and ruin gardens and crops by feeding on their young greenery.

What kills wasps instantly? ›

“Soap will kill wasps.” I thought: Of all of the preposterous, redneck, stupid home remedies I'd ever heard of, using dish soap to kill wasps instantly topped the list. Gary explained how he puts liquid soap into a spray bottle with a little water, then sprays a stream of it to kill unwanted wasps around his house.

Which sting hurts more wasp or hornet? ›

The strength of the venom varies among species, but hornet stings are generally more painful to humans than other wasp species, due to a large amount of acetylcholine. Stings are rarely fatal to humans (excepting allergic reactions), but swarms of hornets can be deadly.

Which sting hurts the most bee or wasp? ›

Wasp stings can be much more painful than bee stings. This is due in part to the fact that wasps are capable of stinging repeatedly—often in the same spot. Wasps are more aggressive and will sting at will, especially when they are provoked or when their nest is threatened.

Should I destroy a yellow jacket nest? ›

Yellow jackets become more aggressive as early fall approaches making them more likely to sting, which is why if you have a nest on your property now is the time to treat or remove it.

Whats worse hornet wasp or yellow jacket? ›

Biologists have found that yellow jackets are more aggressive than hornets. Of course, they can become aggressive when someone gets near their nest. In addition to that, yellow jackets have been known to sting people for no reason at all.

Are hornets aggressive? ›

A little known fact about hornets is they are actually not as aggressive as one might think. Like most nest building insects, hornets will usually only attack to defend their colony when they feel it is being threatened.

Should I destroy a hornets nest? ›

Your first reaction may be to try to knock the nest down on your own, but we suggest that you refrain from doing so. Hornets build paper thin gray nests that hang near the ground or way up high. Each year they will build an entirely new nest. They are social insects that work together for the good of the colony.

What are hornets afraid of? ›

Peppermint oil: Wasps and hornets hate the smell of peppermint oil! So, take a cotton ball soaked in peppermint oil and place it near areas where you've seen wasps and hornets. You can also add a few drops of peppermint oil to a spray bottle filled with water and use it to spray areas.

What attracts hornets to your house? ›

The insects are often attracted to scraps near outdoor eating areas. Homes with protected nooks on outdoor siding and hard-to-reach soffits provide ideal spots for hornets to make nests. These areas are within range of food sources like flowers, garbage cans, and road trash.

What will scare a wasp away? ›

What scent or smell keeps wasps away? Wasps have a strong sense of smell and dislike certain plants like peppermint, spearmint, basil, eucalyptus, cloves, geranium, thyme, citronella, bay leaves, and lemongrass. They are also repelled by vinegar, cinnamon, coffee grounds, and sliced cucumber.

What smells will keep wasps away? ›

Research has shown that a combination of clove, geranium and lemon grass essential oils effectively repels wasps. You can combine several drops of each oil in soapy water then transferring it to a spray bottle.

What does Dawn soap do to wasps? ›

Soap & Water

Some wasp removal experts say that you can handle small hanging nests with a bit of soapy water. Mix 2 tablespoons of dish soap in a spray bottle and fill with water. The soap will clog their spiracles, the pores that they breathe through, and will kill them almost immediately.

What does a wasp or hornet nest look like? ›

A hornets' nest is a paper-like structure made from wood chewed by hornets. The size of a hornets' nest can depend on the size of the colony but can be as large as a basketball and appear to be made out of a paper mache-like material. Most nests are shaped in the form of a teardrop and contain one single entrance.

How can I tell if I have a wasps nest? ›

If you can't see a nest, continuous, loud buzzing suggests the presence of a nest hidden in an attic or rafters. Wasp's nests are usually a dull grey or brown and they resemble a papery balloon or rugby ball. They often have a swirl pattern on the outside and several layers, with cells visible from the bottom.

Do wasps or hornets come out at night? ›

Hornets, the largest social wasps, have a reputation of being facultatively nocturnal. Here we confirm flight activity of hornet workers in dim twilight.


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