The A, B, C’s of Bees: B for Bad “Bees”


Hornets, wasps and bees, Oh My!

There are many things out there that sting. For obvious reasons most people don’t want to get close enough to identify them. So people will often collectively refer to them as bees, wasps, hornets and/or yellowjackets.  But not all “bees” are the same.

Despite our many names for them, technically there are really only bees and wasps, which both belong to the same animal order called Hymenoptera (which is Greek for membrane and wing).  Interestingly, ants also belong to this order.

It can be tricky to tell the real bees (non-aggressive pollinators and honey producers) from the bad, fake bees.

So here is a guide to some of the more common stinging insects you might see flying around.

The Good Bees

Honey bees

The bees that we think of as the “good bees” are honeybees.  They are excellent pollinators and create that luscious golden liquid: honey.  Honeybees come in a variety of colors:  solid black or brown or black/brown with orange or yellow stripes.  They are also usually hairy, which causes them to pick up pollen and carry it from flower to flower.

Honeybees are social insects that work together to create and maintain their hive.  There are few wild honeybee colonies; instead most honeybees are maintained by beekeepers in apiaries.  Honeybees have a queen that is responsible for laying eggs while worker bees carry out all hive duties.  They live in a large colony – one hive can house up to 80,000 bees.  In the wild, they will build their hives in rock crevices, hollow trees and sometimes in the walls of houses. Honeybees do not hibernate in the winter. Instead they spend the summer storing pollen and nectar as food sources that allow them to live throughout the winter.

Honeybees tend to only sting when they or the hive is threatened.  They die after stinging once as they leave their stingers behind.


Bumblebees are often mistaken for honeybees.  However, they are larger and hairier, making them look like an oversized honeybee.  They are typically black and yellow.  They are also good pollinators but poor producers of honey as they only make enough honey for the colony to eat during the summer.

Bumblebee colonies are wild and are smaller than honeybee colonies, housing only 50-400 bees.  They like to build their nests (not hives) in dry, dark cavities.  In winter the queen hibernates in a hole in the ground while the rest of the colony dies off.  The queen will emerge in the spring and set up a new colony.

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees can sting more than once.  However, they also only sting when threatened.

The Bad Bees

The bees that one typically thinks of as  “bad bees” are the wasps.  There are 3 different types of wasps, characterized by their lifestyles:

  • parasitic wasps
  • solitary hunting wasps
  • social wasps

but they all have several things in common, they are poor pollinators and instead of making honey and using pollen for food, wasps are predators, parasites or scavengers.  Wasps can be any color – yellow, brown, blue, even bright red!  Wasps usually have smoother skin, lacking the bee hairs that pick up pollen.  And although I am referring to them as “bad bees”, wasps are agriculturally important as they prey on pest insects.

Parasitic and solitary hunting wasps vary in color.  They can be black, brown or bright yellow.  The distinguishing feature of both of these families is that they lay their eggs in or on other insects.  The larvae will develop on the hosts, usually killing it.

The social wasps build paper nests either close to the ground or high in the trees.  They are aggressive and sting multiple times. Probably the most sited social wasps are the yellow and black yellowjackets.  They like to hover around garbage barrels at picnics areas and are responsible for the majority of stinging incidents.  They feed on some insects but like to scavenge sweet and protein-rich food.  Hornets are larger than yellowjackets and can be both yellow and black or white and black.  Their sting is the most painful of all the wasps.

Although a lot of these insects look-alike, they have very different lifestyles and effects on nature.  So before you pick up that can of hornet killer, you might first want to identify which type of “bee” you have.  If all else fails, try using this picture, courtesy of Bed Bug Killers Las Vegas:


Blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2015 April A to Z Challenge!  My theme for this year:  Honeybees


The A, B, C’s of Bees: B for Bad “Bees” — 3 Comments

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