Bees and wasps
October 7, 2014 6:12 AM   Subscribe

Is the distinction between a bee and a wasp different in British and American English? What about Biene/Wespe in German or cognates in other languages?

To clarify, I'm talking about how the terms are used colloquially, not their proper scientific meanings. In particular it seems like there are insects that I (American) would call a bee, that my European friends would call a wasp, but we can never quite articulate why.
posted by neat graffitist to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
UK English, lived in Canada and US.

I have found the same thing - my Californian wife (and other americans) call pretty much everything bees even when they are clearly wasps. The two are very different (normally in looks as well) so I have no idea why this is the case. I always associated it with it being a blanket term and the difference being 'not of interest' whereas I've always been more interested in wildlife. However I have never once heard someone in a UK call a bee a wasp or vice versa past the age of about 12. They just... know what they are.
posted by Brockles at 6:16 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

American here --- I suspect it's merely whether or not a specific individual can tell the difference or not, or maybe they're too busy running/dodging "generic stinging flying thing!" to care.
posted by easily confused at 6:25 AM on October 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am from the U.S. Northeast. In informal speech I sometimes refer to yellow jackets/hornets as bees, but not the types of wasps with long, skinny bodies - those I would always call wasps. Also, I have never been clear on the distinction, if any, between hornets and yellow jackets.
posted by jkent at 6:27 AM on October 7, 2014

International person living in the US: folks here seem to colloquially use the term 'bees' for most flying insects that vaguely fit into this category. Probably relatedly, there's more of a bee-based panic here than anywhere else I've seen. (Not panic about the honey bee situation, but panic about being stung or being chased by a bee-like creature.)
posted by barnone at 6:30 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a beekeeper in the US and I think most people call anything that flies and is black & yellow a "bee" even though wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and honeybees are similarly colored, but are very different creatures (wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are jerks!). I think it mostly comes from ignorance and as Brockles says, it's not of interest to most folks to call these insects by their correct name; which I think gives honeybees a bad reputation.
posted by ATX Peanut at 6:30 AM on October 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

American living in the UK here. I've noticed that, in general, over here people are more likely to make the distinction between bee and wasp. It also seems that, compared to the US, in Britain people aren't too bothered by bees, whereas wasps bring out emotions from annoyance to fear.
posted by penguinicity at 6:32 AM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

insects that I (American) would call a bee, that my European friends would call a wasp, but we can never quite articulate why

First time I've heard there is any ambiguity in the matter: if it makes honey it's a bee, otherwise it's a wasp.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:35 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Haha wow, so the first six answers are all "Americans are wrong." That seems highly plausible but to offer a mild defense, my experience is exactly the opposite of Brockles' -- anything that's not a bumblebee (big and nearly spherical), my European friends refer to as wasps, even if they're clearly bees.

And they tend to define the difference not anatomically but behaviorally, like "bees make honey/are nice, wasps sting/are annoying" -- as though anything that's not making honey right at the moment and is buzzing around our food is ipso facto a wasp.

Maybe I'm just smart and my friends are dumb? I could live with that answer too, I suppose.
posted by neat graffitist at 6:42 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Northeast US reporting in. Grew up in a rural/suburban area. People distinguished between bumblebees, honeybees, ground bees, various wasps, and yellowjackets. The bee/yellowjacket divide was especially important, because yellowjackets are jerkier than bees.

If some Americans are more panicky about bees, could it be because of so-called killer bees? The media panic was nationwide, even though their territory is pretty limited.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:43 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not all bees make honey, not in the way we think of honey anyway.

I teach classes at nature centers and outside in the Northeast, and I will confirm that your average American, in my experience, just calls everything 'bee.' But many people will differentiate between bee and wasp. Also, children are terrified of being stung by anything that looks even vaguely sting-y, including bees. I think part of this is that with bee allergies (and other deadly allergies and a better awareness of allergies in general) on the rise, adults, including me, are a little more twitchy about kids being stung.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:49 AM on October 7, 2014

Best answer: One more perception I have as a British person whose always lived in the UK and grew up around bees is that lots of British people do say wasp when they see a honeybee. People who call bees bees generally see them as benign, but if they call them a wasp, then they're likely to be pretty panicky about it.
posted by ambrosen at 6:53 AM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I grew up in rural Texas. I guess we might as well have been entomologists on the matter judging by the responses so far - we differentiated between honeybees, driller (carpenter) bees, wasps, dirt daubers, and yellow jackets and called them by name on sight. "Yellow jacket" was anything smooth flying thing that was yellow or yellow striped though, and hornets weren't even in the naming scheme.
posted by Willie0248 at 6:54 AM on October 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

Am I right in thinking that Africanised bees (which you don't get in Europe) have a similar behaviour to wasps? Honey bees will generally come and have a look at you see you're not a nectar producing flower and then fly off. Wasps otoh will zigzag in-your-face aggressively then steal your food and drink. What do Africanised bees do? Are they only aggressive in swarm or individually?
posted by guy72277 at 6:58 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Germans (who'd be surprised!) use the terms rather specifically even in conversation.
The annoying ubiquitous [European] jellowjacket is called "Wespe". [wikipedia: " established in North America, southern Africa, New Zealand, and eastern Australia"].
Other kind of wasps are often a little indiscriminately called "Schlupfwespe" [wikipedia links to this site in English].
We also distinguish between Hummeln (bumblebees; round flying bee-like creatures), Bienen (honey bees; other flower-loving bee-like creatures), and Hornissen (the European hornet, in fact).

The black (or bald-faced) hornet, I learn, is actually a wasp. We don't have them over here, and get confused when coming over there and everyone freaks out about a hornet's nest: the European hornet is large but not all that aggressive.

There's a pattern here. I have tried to explain hedgehogs (subfamily Erinaceinae; when I was in school they still were ranked as insectivora, a group that isn't used any more) and porcupines (rodents) to my American SO, and it doesn't stick: little or medium-sized critter with spikes: hedgehog.
posted by Namlit at 7:01 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (I'm also still curious about the difference in terminology between English and other languages, in addition to the British/American one.)
posted by neat graffitist at 7:02 AM on October 7, 2014

Europe is a large place. Some are native speakers of English, some are not. I am a non-native speaker of English living in the UK and I know the clear distinction between a bee (and between a honeybee & a bumblebee) and a wasp. Never heard anybody confuse the two either.

I grew up in the countryside of a European country. I am wondering if you are not just observing a pattern based upon how much experience the various people have had around insects?

As for the linguistic side of things, I think you need to think about how many European languages (but not all) are Indo-European languages. English is at its core a Germanic language, so it'll exhibit a lot of similarities with its linguistic brethen. I seem to remember that "bee" is one word that can be traced back very far, so you'll get variations upon it in several languages (dating back before the Germanic split).
posted by kariebookish at 7:05 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Am I right in thinking that Africanised bees (which you don't get in Europe) have a similar behaviour to wasps?

From what I know, Africanized honeybees are very defensive of their nests. They're generally more aggressive, but they get really scary when they form a swarm. Their danger has been overhyped, but they are definitely more aggressive than European honeybees.

little or medium-sized critter with spikes: hedgehog.

Hunh. Did she not grow up in an area with porcupines? I have a hard time picturing somebody from my hometown referring to a porcupine as a hedgehog. My related experience, however, is that many Americans don't learn until far later in life that hedgehogs are not native to the US. I presume Sonic is to blame, in addition to the fact that hedgehogs are so familiar and non-exotic seeming.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:09 AM on October 7, 2014

Best answer: I'm a native speaker of Dutch, which has the cognates bij and wesp. This is the first time I've even thought about not distinguishing between the two by species in colloquial usage, in English or Dutch. I think the tricky part here is distinguishing between an actual dialectical variation and a common error — at what point the latter turns into the former is sort of out-of-scope here I guess. Dutch does not normally distinguish between "ape" and "monkey" like English does, generally using aap for both; call a bee a wasp though and you'll likely be corrected or asked to clarify. It's absolutely possible there are dialectical variations in Dutch here that I'm not aware of, but I'd be quite surprised to hear them.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:10 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a native (southern) English guy. To me, a bumble bee / honey bee is always called a bee, and the common wasp is always called a wasp. Anything else is a bit more open, but basically, if it's roundish and docile it's a bee, if it's thinnish and aggressive it's a wasp. If the wasp is particularly big, it's ok to call it a hornet. No one ever uses the term 'yellow jacket'.
posted by Ned G at 7:15 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

(I'm also still curious about the difference in terminology between English and other languages, in addition to the British/American one.)


Wasp: Wespe (German), wesp (Dutch), geting (Swedish; the word is a diminutive of goat in a likening between horns and the sting, says my trusty internet).

Bumblebee: Hummel (German), hommel (Dutch), humla (Swedish).

Honey bee: Biene (German), bij (Dutch), honungsbi or just bi, (Swedish).

Hornet: Hornisse (German), hornaar (Dutch; but I've not found many people who make that kind of distinction--you'd probably hear people say 'een kanjer van een wesp' or something), bålgeting (Swedish, never heard anyone use that word).
The vagueness about hornets comes greatly from their rareness. The European hornet is a protected species, and it's been decades since I last saw one (they're quite a sight, sooo large...)
posted by Namlit at 7:17 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I grew up in the central U. S., near St. Louis, and I've been confused about the precise distinctions in U. S. English my entire life. Growing up, I was pretty sure that:

- If it was "normal-sized" (the size of a housefly, or a pinto bean), colored orange (dirty yellow) & black, with fuzz, it was a "bee".

- If it was "normal-sized", colored yellow and black, without fuzz, it was a hornet or a yellowjacket. I was never clear on the distinction, or if there was one. All the other kids used these terms, but could never quite explain them. I have a suspicion that 'hornet' referred to something larger, but who knows.

- If it had a slender, all-black body with long yellow legs hanging down, it was a wasp (a "mud dauber").

- Bumblebees were a breath of linguistic fresh air - they are large, solitary, yellow-and-black, quite fuzzy, and move drunkenly. Never any confusion about whether something was or was not a bumblebee.

Living in Colorado now, people refer to normal-sized black-and-yellow smooth-bodied creatures as 'bees', and I don't know what that portends.

Big shout out to UK English for keeping it real with 'harvestmen.' The whole 'daddy-longlegs' situation in the Colonies is out of control, sorry about that.
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:34 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a native speaker of American English and distinguish between bees and wasps. I grew up in Florida and my experience is that we get pretty specific about such insects and use specific terms like paper wasp, mud dauber, yellow jacket, and so on.

I've also taught my children to know the difference between bees and wasps and that wasps and hornets are on the whole much more likely to be aggressive than bees.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:37 AM on October 7, 2014

I know the difference between local bees and wasps and call them by the proper names, but generally I just call things that seem stingy but not aggressive or jerky bees and evil stingy bugs wasps. I guess bee or wasp-like bugs that will sting you without provocation I call wasps, and things that will leave you alone unless you bother them bees. (Guess which one keeps building nests on my balcony.)

I'm in Canada and have lived my whole life in urban areas.
posted by jeather at 7:47 AM on October 7, 2014

Best answer: British in US. Back in Britain, the reference bee is the bumblebee, the honey bee is recognised as a bee primarily in the context of hive- and honey-related activity but will also be picked out as a bee when it's doing bee-like things around flowers and not being an arsehole about it, whereas "streamlined / not fuzzy / bit of an arsehole" usually means wasp, and "big / not fuzzy / complete arsehole" equals hornet, even if it's not a true hornet. And there are hoverflies which look like wasps but aren't arseholes. There just aren't the range of bees or wasps commonly encountered in the US -- European carpenter bees only just made it to the UK, mason bees aren't native, having housing stock that's mostly not timber-framed and small gardens tends to keep most bees and wasps from nesting in or around houses.
posted by holgate at 7:47 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In answer to the question: yeah, people here in America call everything "bee," and I think it's part of a larger trend of relative ignorance about the natural world. Most people I know, including me, couldn't identify more than a handful of tree species or songbird species either.

However, most people do know that bees and wasps/hornets/yellowjackets are different things. They just don't bother to make the distinction in colloquial speech. But I think if you showed most Americans a photo of a bee and a wasp they would correctly identify them if asked.

Am I right in thinking that Africanised bees (which you don't get in Europe) have a similar behaviour to wasps? Honey bees will generally come and have a look at you see you're not a nectar producing flower and then fly off. Wasps otoh will zigzag in-your-face aggressively then steal your food and drink. What do Africanised bees do? Are they only aggressive in swarm or individually?

Bees aren't aggressive so much as defensive. If they think you're messing with their hive, they will defend it by sending several bees out to chase you away. Africanized bees will pursue people further and in larger numbers than non-Africanized bees will, that's the main difference. No bee will attack a person who isn't near their nest because, unlike a wasp, the bee will die. (And a bee won't steal your food, except occasionally a sip of soda or something. Wasps are omnivores, bees pretty much just eat nectar and pollen.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:47 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: While British people almost never, in my experience, confuse a wasp with a bee, there are some areas where they do get confused. I've found that many people only know about the 'yellowjacket' kind of wasp, and aren't at all familiar with the many other types to be found around woodland and gardens. Also, people don't seem to be very familiar with hoverflies - another extremely common yellow-and-black striped flying insect - and often react to them as they would to wasps... which is a shame.
posted by pipeski at 8:01 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is the distinction between a bee and a wasp different in British and American English?

Not to my knowledge, at least as far as common wasps (yellow jackets) are concerned.

What about Biene/Wespe in German or cognates in other languages?

Bij / wesp in Dutch, again I don't think there's a difference here in common usage.
posted by atrazine at 8:15 AM on October 7, 2014

I grew up in the southeast US, and my layperson's understanding of hymenopterans was similar to Rat Spatula's: honeybees are small and fuzzy, bumblebees are large and fuzzy, yellow jackets are approximately honeybee-sized and smooth, and anything that doesn't fall into one of these categories is a "wasp," especially if it's large, not striped, or has an extra skinny/bulbous/pointy abdomen. I know that's not exactly accurate.

I've gotten lazy as I've grown up, and I now usually call yellow jackets "bees" unless there's a need to make the distinction. When there's a flying stinging insect hovering over your friend's shoulder, it's easier to shout "BEE!" than "WASP!" or "YELLOW JACKET!"
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:18 AM on October 7, 2014

US rural South native. My cohort certainly differentiated between bees, wasps, hornets and yellow jackets. My school system didn't have air conditioning or especially thorough groundskeepers, so we were exposed to all these species in school. Bees prompted a bored "don't bother it and it won't bother you" from the teacher. Yellow jackets temporarily slowed instruction as the teacher kept an eye on it. Wasps and hornets interrupted instruction by prompting the teacher to shoo them back out the window and then close said window.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:38 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Midwest US; in my experience, people call them bees when a) they are in a swarm or obviously nearby a hive or b) they are obviously fat round bumblebees or c) they are currently sexing up a flower. Solitary yellow-and-black buzzy insects are almost always called "ugh, a wasp or something." Native bees to the area (there are hundreds of species, says the state DNR) are actually solitary, not swarming, but almost everyone calls them "wasps" casually. When someone asks me what such an insect in my garden is, I usually say, "Probably a local bee?" (My kids, 3 and 5, identify such insects as "fat bumblebees" "bees in a hive" and "probably a bee?")

I think most people know they're not WASP-wasps, just that there are a relatively large variety of yellow-and-black insects that potentially sting and this one is not one of the two kinds they know are non-aggressive (honey bees and bumblebees), so they'll steer clear. Local native bees are virtually all non-aggressive, but leaving them alone is just as well; there are a few species that look very very wasplike unless you are, like, inspecting their abdominal markings up close and I'D RATHER NOT THANKS.

Most people around here aren't too worried about what that buzzing yellow-and-black insect is (as noted, there are hundreds of local varieties and most are harmless to humans and just want to keep foraging through the flowers) unless they see a nest, at which point they begin to freak out. Local laymen can MUCH more reliably identify wasp and yellowjacket nests than the insects themselves.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:39 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can tell bees from wasps. So can lots of people.

I guess lots of people can't distinguish X from Y because they've never gotten that information, but that doesn't mean that the usage of the words X and Y is wrong.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:06 AM on October 7, 2014

I am going to throw some cold water on the theory being developed here. I once (in the 1970s) had an Englishman (in England) correct me on my use of the term "bumblebee".

To me: bumblebee = bumblebee, a specific species of insect with distinct behaviours, eg a preference for purple flowers and the (at the time) inexplicable ability to fly despite what was then generally accepted about its aerodynamic qualities.

To him: bumblebee = a childish term for a bee -- along the lines of saying "tummy" for abdomen -- requiring stern correction by an authoritative source, to wit, a twenty year old English person with a high school education.

I on the other hand, raised in the US, use the terms honey bee, bumble bee, sweat bee, wasp, mud dauber, yellow jacket, hornet, etc. for what I believe to be distinct species, or at least distinct groups of species of flying insects with similar appearance and behaviour.

I also know the difference between a housefly, a deerfly, a blackfly, a fruitfly, a dragonfly, and a kitchen fly.
posted by Herodios at 9:53 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Southern United States here and my family and friends always used "bees" to refer to actual bees, either honey or bumble and "waspers" to refer to wasps/yellow jackets. Hornets were a different animal altogether and usually just caused screams and flailing.
posted by teleri025 at 9:57 AM on October 7, 2014

I'm from the Northeast (USA) and I can tell the difference between honeybees, bumblebees, yellowjackets and hornets; ground bees / swat bees or some of the other types mentioned would probably get classified as "bee" for me because it isn't an area of interest for me. I refer to them by their proper names.

Growing up in New York I have had direct experience with honeybees and bumblebees, but didn't encounter a yellowjacket until I was attacked by a swarm of them in Vermont.

Also, bumblebees are awesome.
posted by Julnyes at 10:01 AM on October 7, 2014

When I was in Ohio in the summer there was a nest of what I would call wasps in the UK but which locals called yellowjackets. What they called a wasp was, well, a wasp but a big, exotic-looking kind of wasp with a reddish/black body. A bee was a bee.
posted by essexjan at 10:46 AM on October 7, 2014

Best answer: Italian, grew up in Italy, now live in New England.

In Italy there is a clear distinction between an ape (bee) and a vespa (wasp), or maybe I just grew up in the country.

In New England, it seems to me that people who are afraid of bugs call everything a wasp/hornet and people who are not afraid of bugs call everything a bee. I make the distinction between the two rather forcefully, but that's because I'm a gardener and getting my own honey bees next year. Not that wasps don't pollinate! Or native bees! It's just that they are clearly different insects and they provoke different emotions in people. Wasps = scary, bees = friendly.
posted by lydhre at 11:11 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wonder if there's a rural/suburban/urban divide on this. I grew up enough in the country that bee/hornet/wasp (with honey/bumble/sweat/carpenter/digger as bees and mud daubers the only specifically defined wasps, and hornet/yellowjacket used interchangeably). I do know that at least in my (Midwest) neck of the woods, people would often describe being "bit" by a bee (rather than stung), and that unverifiable stings were always put down to bees.
posted by klangklangston at 11:58 AM on October 7, 2014

I grew up in rural Texas. I guess we might as well have been entomologists on the matter judging by the responses so far

Very interesting. Also from Texas and I was going to say something similar. Most people I know with who the subject has come up have been specific and correct.

We do have a lot of wasps down here, and the difference between a mud dauber and a yellowjacket is important when deciding whether to abandon your food.
posted by cmoj at 12:00 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Another European voice (grew up in Luxembourg, now live in England). The main distinction I made growing up was: bees sting once (then lose their sting and die), wasps can sting repeatedly (therefore are arseholes. Plus useless cuz they don't even produce honey). I'd make this distinction in all languages I speak (Luxembourgish: Bei / Harespel, German: Biene / Wespe, French: abeille / guêpe and English bee / wasp).
I can also tell bees and wasps apart... mostly - I'll grant that I may mistake other wasp-like insects for wasps.

I may have experienced people mixing the two up, but usually in a panic type situation "aaaargh a bee/wasp, no time to check which, must panic!!"
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:55 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Greek word for bee is μέλισσα, and is closely related to honey (μέλι) - so anything that doesn't produce honey goes by another name: usually either σφήκα (wasp - not hairy, aggressive) or μπάμπουρας (hairy, larger than a bee, loud buzzing sound) .
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:36 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

My wife grew up in Portland, Oregon. She calls everything a Bee and it annoys me.

My 11-year-old son calls everything a Yellow Jacket, likely because he is afraid of getting stung.
posted by tacodave at 4:03 PM on October 7, 2014

UK born and raised here:

If it is a bit fat and flying 'drunk' it is a bee. Leave it alone.

If it is 'thinner' and coming at you with a plain intent to try and kill; it is a wasp. Flail at it / Flee - do whatever you have to do to survive.
posted by She Kisses Wyverns at 4:09 PM on October 7, 2014

In my current corner of the SE United States, where there are a lot of (sizeable) wasps that are relatively benign as long as you don't directly interfere with their nests, 'yellowjacket' seems carved out both as descriptive of their species and a reminder that they're nasty vindictive little shits.
posted by holgate at 5:09 PM on October 7, 2014

Born and raised in California, and I have never met anyone who calls all buzzy things "bees". Most people here distinguish between bees and bumblebees; and bees and wasps or yellowjackets. I think that making these distinctions is less of a cultural thing and more of an indoor/outdoor activities divide. I'm guessing nyone who spent much time in backyard swimming pools or at picnics knows the difference.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:50 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in PA. Country kids knew the difference between bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets. City kids called everything a bee and tried to kill it.

A yellow jacket has a nest in the ground. Don't go near it. A wasp or a hornet makes a nest in a tree. Don't go near it. Don't step on bees - they're working. Bumblebees are your friends.
posted by clarkstonian at 7:05 PM on October 7, 2014

I grew up in Michigan (suburban, but rural suburban) and now live in western Massachusetts (rural). I distinguish various bumblebees, honeybees (my neighbors have a few hives), native bees, sweat bees, mud-daubers, paper wasps, yellowjackets, hornets (not that we have any in our neck of the woods, thank goodness), ichneumon wasps, and braconid wasps.

But I'm a historian working on the history of entomology. As a kid, I think my folktaxonomy was limited to bees, bumblebees, sweat bees, wasps, and yellowjackets. After spending a few summers in Oxford, England, I've become intimately familiar with hoverflies, too (not hymenoptera, but similar in appearance).

I have also found this discussion useful since one of my research interests is folktaxonomy of invertebrates, especially insects. My focus is on the 15th-18th century, but you've all given me food for thought. Thanks!
posted by brianogilvie at 7:33 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Country kids knew the difference between bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets. City kids called everything a bee and tried to kill it.

This matches up with my experience the most. I'm honestly surprised by the amount of nationalistic generalizing that's going on in the thread. I think the main difference between English/Am. English/German folk taxonomizing is going to be the different species present in different areas, and whether the speaker has a reason to know the difference.

To provide data for the survey, I grew up in the american southwest, and the terms honeybee, bee (for non-honeybee varieties), yellowjacket, hornet, wasp, cicada killer (those are cool/gross) were all familiar, and used to refer to specific animals. Me and my friends were outdoorsy animal kinda people. I just asked the GF, and she said she didn't have a working knowledge of much more than bee/wasp until later in life.
posted by DGStieber at 9:21 PM on October 7, 2014

New Zealand:

Big, hairy, drunken, solitary: Bumblebee
If it has hair: Bee
If it doesn't have hair: Wasp - they're also thinner and narrower

I think the main problem is down to if it's some yellow flying thing and you can't see it well enough to figure out if it's a Bee or a Wasp, people just say 'Wasp' if they're worried about it stinging someone, and 'Bee' if it's heading towards a flower. False identification, basically.

There are some small, black, narrow (but a little fuzzy!) native bees, but if people don't know what they are, they'd probably say wasp or insect.
posted by Elysum at 9:23 PM on October 7, 2014

I live in Spain, and in my experience people call honeybees, hornets and yellowjackets abeja (generic term for bee), and wasps are called by their true name avispa. Any large, humming, flying insect is an abejorro (basically "big bee"), which is mostly just bumblebees.

Interestingly, no one is afraid of anything that falls in the "bee" category, and many is the time I've sprinted away from the table when someone swats at a yellowjacket. I mean, are you nuts?!
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:14 AM on October 8, 2014

To be clearer:
Yellow jacket = Wasp
posted by Elysum at 7:04 PM on October 8, 2014

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