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How to tell bees from wasps
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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 the 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 (Polistes) Baldfaced hornet
color varies but generally amber to brown translucent alternating with black stripes, some are mostly black yellow with black stripes, sometimes with red tail, to dark black and opaque 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 gentle aggressive
Preferred food nectar from flowers other insects, overripe fruit, sugary drinks, human food and food waste, particularly meat* 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.
*Yellow jackets are carnivorous during the brood rearing part of the season. They feed insects to their brood, and obtain the sugar for their flight muscle energy mostly from secretions of the brood. During this time they can be attracted to traps bated with meat or fish. Near the end of summer, when brood rearing ceases and this sugar source is no longer available, yellow jackets become frantic for sugar, and can be baited with sugar based baits. They are also much more likely to visit fall flowers for nectar, than they are earlier in the season.

See also: wasps

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