Bee vs wasp: what's the difference?
Bees and wasps aren’t really all that different says the charity Buglife, and we should treasure and protect both
Wasps often get bad press, the villain of the insect world, while the bee is the hero, loved and protected. Yet the truth is they are not too dissimilar, and both play hugely important roles in the ecosystem.
How similar are bees and wasps?
Bees and wasps are members of the order Hymenoptera, and as such share many characteristics and features. Visually they can look very similar and are easy to get confused; wasps can look like bees and bees can look like wasps.
Both bees and wasps can be classified as social or solitary, additionally many solitary species are also described as cuckoos (they use other species to complete their lifecycles, particularly in terms of caring for/raising young and pirating food), i.e. the gypsy cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus bohemicus) and the cuckoo wasp (Vespula austriaca)
Social bee societies are generally better researched and understood than social wasps, but both consist of a queen (the only sexually developed female), workers (sexually under developed females who do all the “heavy lifting”) and drones (males, whose sole purpose is to fertilise the queen’s eggs). For wasps the mated queen will hibernate during the winter months and she is the only wasp that will survive more than a year as a result.
Similarly, mated bumblebee queens will hibernate during the winter months alone and the rest of the colony will die off. In contrast a queen honeybee will over winter with her Workers who continue to feed, keep her warm and protect her. Drones are pushed out at the end of summer in order to conserve food stores for the honeybee queen; drones will inevitably die as a result.
Solitary bees and wasps will nest in a variety of different ways, either singly or in aggregations (still alone but in the vicinity of others) including: by digging burrows, hijacking others burrows, hiding in hollow plant stems, hiding in holes in wood or buildings, even using empty snail shells.
Both bees and wasps are pollinators. Bees are recognised by many as such, but wasps less so. When a wasp travels from plant to plant looking for nectar to feed on they also carry pollen with them. Wasps generally have much less hair than bees, so don’t carry as much pollen, but they still pollinate.
What are the differences between bees and wasps?
Now we’ve explored some of the similarities let’s look at some of the differences.
Bees vs wasp: diet
Bees are essentially vegetarian, mostly feeding on nectar and pollen, which they collect from flowers, or steal from other bees, particularly here in the UK. In contrast most wasps tend to be classed as omnivores feeding on nectar and sugars from rotting fruit, but also hunting other insects and spiders.
The eagle-eyed among you will note I said bees 'mostly' feed on nectar and pollen and wasps 'hunt' other insects and spiders.
Cannibalism has been recorded in honeybees to protect the nest from threats, such as workers gone rogue and laying eggs, or during times of pollen shortage and to control brood rearing ratios. Bumblebees have also been observed feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. In addition, there is a small group of South American bees known as vulture or carrion bees who actively feed on rotting meat.
In contrast, adult wasps, both social and solitary, only feed on sugars. These sugars can come from flower nectar, honeydew produced by aphids or the wasp larvae themselves, who produce a sugary liquid that the adult wasp consumes. Adult wasps don’t actually eat the prey they capture and kill, they feed it to their young.
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Fun fact: each summer social wasps in the UK capture an estimated 14 million kilogrammes of insect prey so they really do a great job of pest control!
Bee vs wasp: the sting
Neither male bees nor wasps can sting. It is just the females of each species that possess the ability to sting, and even then it's not every species that can sting.
It is generally understood that most bees can only sting once, whereas a wasp can sting multiple times. However, this is not strictly true as it depends on the design of their sting.
If a bee has a barbed sting it is highly likely it will only sting once and then die as a result, whereas if a bee has a smooth sting it has the ability to escape with its sting intact and therefore sting again. The common wasp has a smooth sting, which doesn’t get caught, allowing them to sting more than once.
Bee vs wasp: honey
While not all bees make honey (more than 90% of bee species don’t, in fact) there are a number of species that do. Those known as honeybees are the most prolific but other species do too – like some bumblebees and stingless bees.
Making honey isn’t exclusive to bees, some species of wasp make honey too, like the Mexican honey wasps (Brachygastra spp.). They make it in the same way as honeybees but not in the same quantities, only making enough for their own consumption.
Are all bees and wasps black and yellow?
In short, no. The smeathman’s furrow bee (Lasioglossum smeathmanellum) is one of four metallic green lasioglossum bees found in the UK. But, if you travel further afield, to south-east Asia, you’ll even discover a blue bee, the blue carpenter bee (Xylocopa caerulea).
Similarly, the ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis ruddii) is also far from black and yellow. It’s a tiny metallic red-and-green species of cuckoo wasp, a solitary species that feeds on nectar as an adult but whose young (larvae) parasitise other wasp and bee species.
The eastern United States is home to the beautifully furry, black-and-red eastern velvet ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis), which, despite its name, is a parasitoid wasp and the females have no wings.
In the UK there are around 250 different species of bee and 9,000 different species of wasp and, as you would expect with such a large number, they are a variety of different sizes, shapes and colours and exhibit a vast array of foraging, feeding and breeding behaviours.
So, if you think about it, bees and wasps aren’t really all that different. The main difference seems to be our perception of their characteristics and their usefulness – perceptions that, in many instances, are built on false or partial information. Indeed, evidence suggests that bees originally evolved from hunting wasps that lived 120 million years ago and that pollen feeding allowed the bees to adapt and change.
Next time you see a bee or a wasp, why not use the opportunity to take a closer look and learn a little more? Marvel at their individuality, beauty and ingenuity and consider how different life on earth would be without them buzzing around.
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