How to tell bees from wasps

Many people confuse bees with their cousins, the wasps. Domesticated bees have been selected over time for gentleness and will usually sting only when their hive is threatened. Bees are often blamed for stings of their wild cousins.

Here are a few useful features to help distinguish between several common varieties of bee and wasp.

Honeybee Bumblebee Yellowjacket Paper wasp Baldfaced hornet
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color varies but generally yellow to brown stripes yellow with black stripes, sometimes with red tail, to dark black and bright yellow stripes dusty yellow to dark brown or black black and ivory white markings
coat furry (short hair) furry (long hair) smooth
size 1.3 cm (1/2 inch) 2.5 cm (1 inch) or more 1.3 cm (1/2 inch) 1.9–2.5 cm (3/4 to 1 inch) up to 1.9 cm (3/4 inch)
legs not generally visible while flying two long legs are visible hanging down during flight. no pollen baskets long. no pollen baskets  
behavior gentle, unless hive or queen is threatened gentle aggressive
Preferred food nectar from flowers other insects, overripe fruit, sugary drinks, human food and food waste other insects
stinger barbed smooth
after stinging bee dies can sting repeatedly
Lives in large colonies of flat wax-based honeycomb hanging vertically small cavities in the soil small umbrella-shaped papery combs hanging horizontally in protected spaces such as attics, eaves or soil cavities large paper nest shaped like an upside-down pear usually hanging from branches or eaves

When walking, you can often see light-colored pollen on the pollen baskets on a honeybee's rear legs.

There are several races of domesticated honeybees with varying characteristics of honey production, disease resistance and gentleness. Since the honeybee will die after stinging, there is no advantage for a bee to sting to defend itself. Honeybees will generally only sting when the hive is directly threatened. Honeybees found in the field or on a flower will rarely sting.
Note: Africanized honeybees can be more aggressive than the more common European honeybees, but still only defend the hive.

See also: wasps

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