Wasps and bees are beneficial insects that live in colonies ruled by queens and maintained by workers. Both insects are common to the Northeastern United States. The biggest differences between wasps and bees are that wasps can sting multiple times as a form of defense, whereas bees can only sting once. Some species, such as yellow jackets, can be highly defensive. Most stinging incidents involve wasps and hornets, not bees.
Wasps and bees have four wings, chewing mouth parts, a stinger and long antennae. The main difference in their physical appearance is that bees are usually very hairy, wasps are usually hairless. Wasps also have a typical slender “wasp waist” and rarely have pollen-carrying hairs because most are carnivorous and don’t eat pollen. Wasps are important predators of many pests, including cutworms, aphids and grasshoppers. Unlike wasps, bees are vegetarian in both the adult and larval stages, gathering their food in the form of nectar from flowers. Their protein needs are filled by pollen collection. Most species of bees are valuable pollinators, essential in the production of food crops.
Yellow jackets (Vespula spp.) are yellow and black striped with smooth, elongated bodies and narrow wings. Females have a smooth stinger full of venom that allows them to sting more than once, leaving an itchy or swollen bump for up to 24 hours. Males do not sting. Outdoors in late summer, yellow jackets scavenge meat or sweet liquids and can become very aggressive if challenged.
Hornets (Dolichovespula spp.) have a white (bald) face and black and white markings on their bodies. They can also be yellow and black like a yellow jacket. Females can sting multiple times, but males do not sting. They are valuable in controlling pest insect populations.
Honeybees (Apis mellifera) come in several different colors from gold to black and are covered with hair. They can only sting once and then they die. Honeybees fly methodically from flower to flower and make a buzz as they fly. They carry moist pollen in clumps on their hind legs.
Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) have a medium to large rounded body shape with yellow and black stripes. Their entire body is fuzzy with many hairs that collect pollen. Their wings move rapidly and they have a distinctive buzzing sound when flying. Worker bees and the queen can sting, while males do not.