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The Difference Between Bees and Wasps

As you may have read in our previous blog about the history of bees, bees evolved from ancient wasps millions of years ago and both modern wasps and bees share a common ancestor. Early bees and wasps were both very similar insects and in many ways they still are today, both being part of a larger group of insects called Hymenoptera. Yet their evolutionary paths have created some differences and most of these come from the special relationship that bees have with flowers.

Before we dive in, it should be said that some differences, especially in appearance, are somewhat of a generalisation. There are over 20,000 bee species around the world and over 250 species just here in the UK. There are even more species of wasp with around 30,000 different species worldwide. There are some wasps that look remarkably like bees and there are also some species of bees that look quite like wasps too!

A hairy body

Perhaps the most visually obvious difference between bees and wasps is that bees look furry and cute, while wasps appear more sleek and almost 'armoured' looking. Wasps do have hairs but far less than bees! Bees have many 'branched hairs' that are perfect for collecting pollen, under a microscope these hairs look almost like little trees with a main 'stem' and lots of little branches sticking out. They also have unbranched hairs over their bodies too. While wasps can (and do!) pollinate flowers indirectly while drinking nectar, they have not evolved to pollinate flowers like bees have. The hairy body of a bee  means it will get covered in pollen while it gathers nectar and it will stick to all the hairs on its body until it starts buzzing around in another flower. Sometimes if you look closely at a bee in your garden you will see all of the pollen stuck to it!

Diet and predatory nature

A big difference between bees and wasps is their diet. Many wasp species are aggressive predators and while young they will eat spiders, beetles, caterpillars and aphids. Adult wasps will mainly feed on nectar like bees but will continue to hunt to feed their larvae or to use the creature as a host to lay wasp eggs in. Bees do not hunt other creatures to eat or to feed their young, they only eat nectar, pollen and occasional other sugary substances they might find.

Roles in nature

Many people understand and appreciate what bees do but wasps also play an important role in our gardens and wider ecosystem. As effective predators wasps can act as a useful exterminator of insects and aphids that can damage our flowers and vegetable crops by spreading disease among them. Having wasps buzzing around may even act as a deterrent and stop some pests even entering your garden! You might think of wasps as a crack team of insect control officers! Wasps are also a good food source for many other animals, including small mammals, birds, and other insects. They play a small but not insignificant role in pollination too. So yes, wasps are important too! However bees, as we've described many times, are the world’s best pollinators and that is their main role along with producing honey!

The sting

Most of us have been told that the difference between wasp and bee stings is that bees can only sting once and wasps can sting over and over again. But that is only partially true and only half the story! For a start, it's only the females of both bees and wasps that can sting. Male wasps and bees cannot sting. It's also true that not all species of wasps and bee can sting, some female wasp species use that part of their body to inject parasitic eggs instead, which is equally unpleasant maybe, but it's absolutely true that there's no sting in their tail.

In the case of female worker honeybees, their stinger is covered in barbs. Used as a defence they can sting another insect numerous times without dying and the barbed stinger is highly effective. It's only when they sting us (or another large animal) that the stinger will usually get stuck. As the bee struggles to escape and fly away the trapped stinger get torn away from her body and kill her. Many bee species have much smoother stingers though, bumblebees being a common example. Because of this bumblebees can and will sting repeatedly if they need to defend themselves.

The fact is that bees are far less likely to sting you and that's not because they will die if they do, it's simply because of their far less aggressive nature. They are not predators like wasps and will almost always only use their stinger as a defence when they feel under attack. Wasps on the other hand will regularly use their stinger to attack other insects and if you are aggressive towards them they might sting you too!

The perception

Perhaps the biggest difference between bees and wasps might just be our perception of them and that seems more than just a little unfair. It's easy to say nice things about bees, we do it all the time, they are invaluable creatures to us in so many ways. Unfortunately their cousins the wasps are generally not looked upon in quite such a favourable way. Bees have evolved to become extremely important to humans but the fact is that wasps also play a very important role in nature and the world around us and they should equally be given the same level of respect from us. Generally if left alone they will show us the same respect too, they certainly don't deserve to be squashed or swatted just because they aren't bees.


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  • Really interesting, useful article, a subject I’ve often wondered about!
    Nicely and clearly explained. Thank you!

    Fiona Burnett
  • When I first met my partner who was in pest control I didn’t know the difference between Bees and Wasps, he told me Wasps have three parts to their bodies while Bees only have two. I watched miner Bees drill into the soil also Bees going into a new hive, 3 Bees went in and came out then a hive of Bees (that he had taken from a house) all walked in just like an army. The best thing I saw was when he was asked to remove a Wasps nest from a roof where men where replacing damaged tiles, myself and the worker who called him stood way back so as not to get stung, along comes a Wasp flying fast straight past me ( I heard the buzz) and stung the man I will not let anyone tell me that Wasps are stupid

    Marylyn Boal
  • I found this very interesting to read and have learnt a lot that I hadn’t realised about bee’s and wasps They were not something I knew a lot about.Thank You

    Jacky Walker

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