What's the difference between bees, hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets?
April 14, 2015 3:34 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between bees, hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets? You're right, I could just Google this question, but both the Google search results page and the sites it links to contain horrifying (to me) pictures of bees/hornets/wasps/yellow jackets. I need a text-only explanation to keep the nightmares at bay. Enter: AskMetafilter!

I recently discovered two half-dollar sized nests - One in my recycling bin and one in the hatchback of my car. I was surprised by how small they were, but my boyfriend nonchalantly said "Oh, yeah, wasp nests are usually like that." What? Really?? There's so much I don't know! And I'm fascinated, especially by the nests! But I reeeeally cannot stand to look at pictures of the critters themselves, try as I might to desensitize myself. If anyone could describe the major differences and maybe even link me to pictures of the nests (WITHOUT bees or bee larvae or any of that fun stuff), I'd be most appreciative!
posted by lizzicide to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Bees are mostly not assholes and will ignore you if allowed to. If you use Opera as a browser, you can turn off images. I hate that every article about mosquitoes shows the little bastidges up close. Nooooo.
posted by theora55 at 3:39 PM on April 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

Previously, FWIW.
posted by Rat Spatula at 3:46 PM on April 14, 2015

I will come back and write an essay on this later probably, but one notable distinction is that bees are not the same bright yellow as many wasps and hornets; they're golden-brown. That's one easy way to tell if you should be worried about a nearby bug, cause as stated above, wasps and hornets are assholes.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:56 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Hornet" and "yellowjacket" I'm pretty sure are just common names for certain species of wasps.

Copypasting the text from a "Differences between bees and wasps" page on HowStuffWorks:

"While bees have robust, hairy bodies with flat rear legs, wasps' bodies are slender with a narrow waist connecting the thorax and abdomen. (The thorax and abdomen are the names given to an insect's mid and rear segments.) In addition, wasps appear smooth and shiny and have slender legs shaped like cylinders."

"Bees are pollinators, spending much of their lives visiting various plants and flowers to gather and distribute pollen. They also feed nectar and pollen to their developing young. Their hairy bodies and flat legs are ideal for holding on to the pollen as they carry it from one area to another.
Wasps, however, are predators. While adults may occasionally feed on nectar or pollen, they feed insects, arthropods, flies and even caterpillars to their young. Their bodies are sleeker and more streamlined for hunting."

"Bees build their nests out of wax cells that they stack on top of one another. Most honeybee nests are manufactured, but other bees make their homes in tree cavities, buildings or even holes in the ground. A wasp's nest consists of one or more rounded combs made of a papery pulp. The wasp makes this pulp out of chewed-up fibers and its own saliva. Wasps tend to build in hidden, out of the way places, like under decks or in remote crevices."

"Both bees and wasps inject their venom with a stinger attached to their bodies. Wasps and most bees can pump the venom into your skin, remove the stinger and then fly away. The honeybee's stinger, however, is barbed and it sticks in your flesh. When the honeybee tries to fly away, her stinger won't budge. Instead, it rips from her body. Since the stinger is attached to the honeybee's digestive system, she eventually dies from the trauma."
posted by soundguy99 at 4:05 PM on April 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

First off, stop using the ambiguous term "bee" when referring to random stinging insects - reduce the confusion by beeing more precise.

Honeybees are the good guys (even though most of 'em are girls). Their abdomens are striped brown and golden-yellow, and look fuzzy. Their hives are made of wax, with cells containing larvae and honey. They only sting when provoked

The bigger, greenish looking bees are bumble-bees - they live in holes in the ground and allegedly can't sting.

Wasps live in papery nests. There's several kinds: mud daubers, yellowjackets, hornets etc. Their bodies are smooth and shiny. Actual yellowjackets' abdomens are black-and-yellow stripped, same colors as a taxicab. They're known to sting without provocation. Hornets build those big enclosed football-shaped nests beloved of cartoonists, but most wasp nests I see are the small open kind you saw.
posted by Rash at 4:20 PM on April 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yellowjackets build their nests in the ground, unlike most other wasps. You do not want to run over one with, say, a lawn mower.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:58 PM on April 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Bumblebees typically have furry black round bodies with a few contrasting yellow belts (or none).

Queen and worker bumblebees can sting...repeatedly, since the stinger lacks barbs and the stinger is not left in the wound. They are not aggressive, they're usually pretty cool if you happen to bump them in the garden.
posted by artdrectr at 5:10 PM on April 14, 2015

Cicada killers also make their burrows in the ground, and although they are terrifying in appearance, they won't bother you.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:17 PM on April 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hornets are seriously monstrously huge. When they're chewing on woody material to make nests, it sounds like an army marching through cornflakes. Do not fuck with them. They are highly likely to pre-emptively fuck with you.

Curiously, cicada killers, which look and sound like violent death from the sky and are about twice the size of an average hornet (so roughly the size of a Prius, give or take), are quite mellow. Unless, of course, you're a cicada. Which no-one around here is, 'cos their incessant posting of eee-wee-wee gets flagged quickly, and they have difficulty scraping up $5. Cicada killers are rare.

Despite looking like metallic cyber-death devices, mud daubers are very laid back. I've had them land on me when I'm working in the garden, and they just like to hang. They have a thing for garden spiders, and are one of the few insects able to take out commercial airliners. So treat them with respect.

Everyone says that bees don't readily sting, but no summer trip into my garden would be complete without a couple of sweat bee stings. Sweat bees - tiny, metallic, adorably fuzzy - like landing on skin. If remotely threatened, they will sting you. It's about as painful as a pulled hair, though; but I feel bad that I've accidentally offed a few adorbs beelettes.

To get really confused about the whole bee/wasp split, a whole bunch of things people tend to class as ants - velvet ants, cow killers, etc. - are flightless bees. These brightly-coloured lads are the ones you'd want to give the slip to, as their stings are painful beyond belief.

So: not all wasps are arseholes, but some bees are. Hope that clears it up for you. Anyone want to tackle bee-mimics and hoverflies?
posted by scruss at 5:37 PM on April 14, 2015 [14 favorites]

Here's a pic of a small wasp nest, sans any nasty wasps.
posted by artdrectr at 5:48 PM on April 14, 2015

You can configure Firefox not to load images:
posted by flimflam at 5:53 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yellowjackets are often active, breeding I suppose, at least in my part of the country (the Southeast), in late Summer and early Fall.
posted by thelonius at 7:03 PM on April 14, 2015

Bumblebees are huge and very docile. They are large with horizontal yellow and black stripes. I have literally kicked a few (accidentally) and they just went on their way.

Yellowjackets look similar but are quite slender, are much more aggressive, and nest in the ground. Wasps, are reddish brown and have a very slender abdomen but fairly large front and hind ends. They are very aggressive and will sting with little provocation.

In all cases but the bumblebee, the way to keep from getting stung is to avoid making quick movements and keep an eye out for them so you don't accidentally step on them or kick them. Also, stay away from their nest/hive/whatever. Even wasps usually won't sting if they land on you, so long as you don't freak out and try to brush them away. Once I trained myself to quietly wait for the little bastards to get bored and fly away, my life became much less painful.
posted by wierdo at 7:18 PM on April 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not mentioned here yet is the carpenter bee. These are commonly mistaken for bumblebees, and I actually can't describe the difference because it seems like all we have here in Atlanta are carpenter bees.

And carpenter bees are awesome. This time of year they are all staking out their own little patch of airspace, hovering in the center and watching for intruders. But only bee-sized intruders -- they pretty much ignore humans, except maybe to get out of the way if you are walking through. They're fun to watch, hovering in their post then ZING they're off to go usher an intruder out of their space.

They dig holes in house eaves, and I like it.
posted by intermod at 8:18 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are so many types of bees I don't even want to try to list them all. Honey bees live together in large numbers but many bees are solitary. The planet DESPERATELY needs all of its bees. Most bees can sting and most bees don't except in the most dire (for the bee) of circumstances, like if you stepped directly on them which almost never happens. I have many bee houses ( link is to pictures of bee houses, there are no actual bees in the pictures) in my yard. I ADORE my bees. I am around many types all the time and I have not been stung since I was a child over 40 years ago.

I also love my wasps. I have quite a few types of wasps and their nests in my yard. I have Mahogany Wasps and paper wasps, and Mud Daubers, and Cicada Killers, and one called A Golden Digger Wasp. The world desperately needs wasps too. They do a lot of polinating as well as preying on caterpillars and grasshoppers and cicadas amoung other things. I have been stung by a wasp. I had grabbed a big chunk of weeds to pull up and accidentally got a wasp wrapped up in there too. It was a paper wasp. The sting felt like a cigarette burn for about five mins. I put some ice on it and it was totally gone in 10 mins and I forgot all about it in 11 mins. It's really no big deal.

Now Hornets and yellow jackets are another story. I'm sure the world needs them too, but I would not want them in my backyard. They are sometimes agressive. I have never seen any of the other wasps or bees EVER behave aggressively.

As for your nests...

If they were a sort of little cookie, made of a papery substance and had five sided holes that were open at the end or capped with a white-ish cap. That is most likely a paper wasp. Don't worry about them. The nest to be wary of is also made of a papery substance but the individual cells are surrounded by more papery stuff. It's rare to actually see the cells unless the nest has been torn open by something. I'd be 90 percent certain what you found was a paper wasp nest. Could you link to a pic? I could probably tell you for sure if I could see it.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:33 PM on April 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm guessing you've discovered this already, but just in case you haven't: don't click the links people are giving you if you don't want to see images of insects (unless, of course, they've stated that it doesn't have insects in it).
posted by Aleyn at 11:23 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: WalkerWestridge: Your description of the nest matches what I saw, including the cells being open. However, both the nest in my car and the nest on the inside of the lid of my recycling bin had at least one wasp crawling on it... So they were definitely active... And I was concerned that I was going to eventually disturb the nests by opening my trunk or opening my recycling bin, and in doing so invite the paper wasps to defend their nest by going after me. While I do feel bad about it (given that I'm a crouton petter at heart, even if I'm afraid of insects), I've had a friend spray them both with the Raid wasp killer, and I'm going to have the nests removed and crushed later today. In your opinion, what should I have done instead?

I'll see if I can manage to get a picture, but if there are any dead wasps clinging to the nest, I'm probably going to cringe right out of my skin before I have a chance.
posted by lizzicide at 5:45 AM on April 15, 2015

No, you totally did the right thing; the nests were in places you needed access to and you would have been stung. I leave paper wasp nests alone if they're safely out of the way, e.g., under the eaves, but these were interfering with your quiet enjoyment of car and bin.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:11 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love social insects, and do not have an unreasonable fear of them, just a wary respect.

In case you care (seems you do!), my approach is to leave them alone if they nest in a place where they are unlikely to cause problems due to accidental disturbance. So, in a tree or up in the crest of the house, etc... no problem. You are free to bee you, my faithful bee-doods.

However, in the mailbox, above the door, under the porch, in a bush where the lawn guy works... Darwin's rule applies. The choice of location is a local survival factor where I am concerned. In the 1 time every 10 years I have to destroy one... I wait until dark, when all the homies are watching B-movies on their betaMax BCRs, and bomb the bee-poop out of them with the miracle of chemistry. In bee-land, it's mostly pyretrhrin, which I understand is a nasty juice from chrysanthemums and what gives them that characteristic smell.

Wicked-pedia link =http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrethrin

Don't feel TOOO bad about it. Bee stings kill a lot more people than snake bites and in most years, terrorists here in the USA...Land of the Bee and home of the Bee-rave.
posted by FauxScot at 10:34 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't feel badly OP. I completely understand doing what you did. I don't blame you a bit. If it were me I could leave the nest alone and take my chances on getting stung. I'm completely comfortable with that and I probably wouldnt ever be stung. Ive had nests inches above my head in our chicken coop right above where I collect the eggs every day. Never been stung by those wasps. I really do believe the wasps sense when people feel comfortable and when people feel fear. You can't help what you feel, and so having a nest in such a high contact place really wouldn't work for you since both you and the wasps would be upset. It's unfortunate but I think you did the only thing you could do. If you find another paper wasp nest in a less trafficed area and you can bear having it around until winter all the wasps except the queen will die once it begins to freeze at night. The queen will go away to hibernate and the nest will be empty. You can knock it down with a broom safely. Or you can have a friend do it if you need to.

Bees on the other hand are not going to sting you. Many of them are SUPER cute and fuzzy too. If it doesn't freak you out too much, it might be interesting for you to try setting up a solitary bee house in some low traffic part of your yard. Solitary bees like Mason bees will not sting (they can but they wont). You might start to really enjoy seeing your bees.

Feel free to message me anytime if you ever have any other questions about bees or wasps. I'm certainly not an expert, but I know some experts and I can usually find out from them. : )
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:46 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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