Honey bee, Yellowjacket, Paper Wasp? What’s the Difference?

Honey bee, Yellowjacket, Paper Wasp? What’s the Difference?

by Michele Ackerman As a beekeeper, I often field questions about flying, stinging insects. 

Sometimes people wonder what stung them and how long the effects will last. Other times, they wonder if they have “good bees” that they should safely relocate to a good home or have “bad bees” that they should destroy. 

The descriptions below can help you determine whether those winged insects should “bee” left alone to do their job or given a wide berth and perhaps removed. 

General Description 

Bees and wasps are distant relatives ― members of the Hymenoptera order ― so they look alike and behave alike. 

Along with their ant cousins, they are eusocial beings, with multiple generations living together in a single nest and cooperatively caring for juveniles. The colony has an egg-laying queen and non-reproducing workers. Females have a special ovipositor used to lay eggs (queen) or modified as a stinger (workers). Males do not have ovipositors, so they cannot sting. 

When they sting, they release pheromones that recruit others to the target. By striking en mass, the tiny insect can defend itself against a much larger threat. 

Honeybees are hairy and nearly as wide as they are tall. Their wings spread from their bodies like those on airplanes. Honeybees can sting just once, and then they die. When they sting, their barbed stinger separates from their abdomen and is left in the victim. Because of this, they will do so only when necessary. 

Wasps, on the other hand, can sting multiple times without dying. Wasp is a generic term for more than a hundred thousand species of narrow-wasted insects. The ill-natured members of the Vespidae suborder include yellowjackets, hornets, and paper wasps. 

Honeybees 

honeybee-wings
The wings on a honeybee spread like those on airplanes. Wasps and hornets hold their wings close to their bodies. 

Honeybees are striped black and amber yellow. They are about ½” long. 

They are more interested in doing their job — collecting nectar and pollen — than stinging. They sting when a predator threatens them or their hive. They may also sting if they get caught in your hair or garments. If this happens, stay calm and try to release them. 

I have always been stung by “accident” or when careless. Often, it happens because I squish a bee with my fingers picking up a frame. Or they become defensive during an inspection, especially if I dilly dally in inclement weather. This is understandable as I am essentially tearing apart their house and exposing its innards as I take out frames and move boxes. 

I have also been stung on the foot while wearing flip-flops for a quick check on the bees. One learns quickly to respect them. When I make rounds now, I wear shoes. And when I open the hive for ANY reason, I suit up. 

honeybee
Honeybees collecting nectar and pollen are a familiar summer site. Hairs on a honeybee’s body are ideal for collecting pollen, which is carried back to the hive in pollen sacks on its legs. 

Yellowjackets 

Yellowjackets are wasps that are often confused with honeybees because they are striped black and yellow and of similar size. However, the yellow of the yellowjacket is brighter, its body is smooth, and its wings are held close. 

Yellowjackets are notoriously aggressive. Often, these nuisances are the uninvited guests at picnics and have a reputation for stinging without cause. They are scavengers that feed on sugary substances and protein sources like meat and dead insects. 

They can be differentiated from other wasps and bees by their nests, typically underground with an opening at the ground surface. 

Yellowjackets are archenemies of honeybees and the bane of beekeepers due to their predatory habits. If numbers are large and the colony weak, yellowjackets can rob a hive of its nectar, honey, and pollen and kill the bees and brood. 

yellowjacket
Yellowjackets are often confused with honeybees and European paper wasps because each is striped yellow and black. Note the black antennae and smooth body of the yellowjacket pictured above. 

Bald-faced Hornets 

Bald-faced hornets are black with white markings on their head and the tip of their abdomen. They are about 5/8” long. Not true hornets, they are more closely related to yellowjackets. 

Like yellowjackets, they feed on sugary substances and protein sources. They generally sting when their nest is threatened. 

Bald-faced hornets may be easiest to identify by their aerial, ball-shaped paper nests built in tree canopies. They can be as large as a football or basketball. 

hornets
Bald-faced hornets are easy to identify by their ball-shaped paper nests, typically high in tree canopies and distinctive black and white coloring. 

European Hornets 

European hornets are large, up to 1” long. They are distinctively marked, with a reddish-brown and yellow head, reddish-brown and black thorax, and black and yellow abdomen.  

European hornets build in dark, hollow cavities like trees, barns, and attics. 

They feed on sugar-rich foods and other insects, including yellowjackets. Hornets generally sting when their nest is threatened. 

hornet
A European hornet is easily identified by its yellow, reddish-brown, and black coloring. 

Paper Wasps 

Paper wasps are brown, black, red, or striped and can be up to ¾” long. They are beneficial as they prey on agricultural and horticultural pests. 

European paper wasps are commonly mistaken for yellowjackets. European paper wasps have yellow antennae and fly with their legs dangled. Yellowjackets have black antennae and fly with their legs behind them. 

wasp
European paper wasp: Note the yellow antennae that distinguish it from a yellowjacket.

Also known as “umbrella wasps,” paper wasps construct nests that dangle from porch ceilings, window and door frames, and light fixtures from a single thread. The structure of wasp abodes is easy to see in these nests because the hexagonal cells are exposed underneath. 

Paper wasps are the least aggressive of the Vespidae suborder but will sting if their nest is threatened. Because they dwell near humans, they are often deemed pests. If left alone, though, paper wasps usually move on when they are done using a nest.  

After Effects of a Sting 

Call your local emergency services if you experience allergic reaction symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, hives, or dizziness, or have been stung multiple times. For people who are allergic, a sting can cause anaphylactic shock. To be prepared, carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen). 

Unless allergic, you can treat most stings at home. Mild to moderate reactions cause redness and swelling at the injection site. Swelling may gradually enlarge and itch in the coming days and then resolve over 5 to 10 days. 

Ultimately, all insects have a purpose for Mother Nature. By human standards, though, they are not all created equally. This rule of thumb may help you avoid aggressive stingers: 

Amber yellow and black, hairy, wings like airplanes = good bee. 

Slender, smooth body, wings close to body = potential fiend, steer clear. 

Essential Oils Sting Remedy 

There are many home remedies for stings. Though not supported by scientific research, they have been handed down for generations, and many swear by them. The one below uses essential oils. 

In a one-ounce spray bottle, add five drops Purify (essential oil by doTERRA)*, five drops lavender, two drops clove, two drops peppermint, five drops basil, and a few squirts of witch hazel. Fill the rest of the bottle with a half/half mix of aloe and fractionated coconut oil. 

*If you wish to make your own “Purify” blend, combine: 

  •     90 drops lemongrass. 
  •     40 drops tea tree. 
  •     65 drops rosemary. 
  •     40 drops lavender. 
  •     11 drops myrtle. 
  •     10 drops citronella. 

Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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