Bees Versus Wasps: Garden Friends or Foes?

While bees and wasps seem to have little in common besides their essential buzzy-ness and the fact that they can fly and sting, both play important roles in our ecosystem as pollinators and pest-destroyers.

What's the difference?

Whether they make honey: OK, that’s a trick. Most bee species don’t make honey — only honeybees and some bumble bees and stingless bees do. So does one species of wasp, the Mexican honey wasp.

Whether they’re pollinators: Right. Another trick. Though bees have a hairy-leg advantage that lets them collect more pollen and take it from plant to plant, wasps are pollinators, too. They just can’t carry as much pollen as bees can.

Stinging little suckers

Bees in the Garden| Vego Garden

If you’re anything like Maria from the Sound of Music, bee stings are not among your favorite things.

What Maria should have lamented, though, were wasp stings, which have the potential to be far more dangerous. 

Stinging behavior is just one of the considerable distinctions between bees and their close cousins: wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets. 

Even within the 250 species of bees, the type of stinger can be a differentiator — one that can mean life or death to the bee itself. 

When a honeybee stings, it doesn’t fare very well in the encounter. At least not female “worker” honeybees.

Here’s why. 

While other bees and wasps have smooth stingers, the stingers of worker honeybees are barbed. When the honeybee stings, the barbs catch in the flesh. And when the honeybee pulls away, she leaves the stinger and venom sac behind — then dies within a few hours, making a sting sound as much like a suicide mission as anything else. If one honeybee asked the other "would it kill you to sting that guy?" the answer would literally be yes.

The good news for us is that any single honeybee can only sting once. 

Not so the wasp, hornet, or yellow jacket. Not only does their venom pack a more powerful chemical punch, but they’re also more inclined to sting multiple times.

They’re also more aggressive than honeybees or bumblebees, which typically only sting when provoked or feel their nest is being threatened. On the other hand, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets will swarm a person (or other mammal) who is ostensibly just minding their own business, sting repeatedly then move onto their next target. 

Clearly, no one wants to risk a sting just to be able to tell bees apart from wasps (which, along with ants, belong to the same insect order, Hymenoptera).

Fortunately, there are many other ways to determine the difference. 

One is not like the other

Female paper wasp | Vego Garden

Female paper wasp

What they look like: Bees are rounder and full-bodied with downy hair that helps them collect pollen. Wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets are slim and have slender legs. Their bodies are shiny and have little hair. 

What they eat: Bees are mostly vegetarian, consuming pollen and nectar from flowering plants. However, when they want to protect their nest or cull the next generation — or there’s not enough pollen to go around — bees are not beyond eating a few of their own. In South America, the so-called vulture bee eats rotting meat. 

By contrast, wasps are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals. In fact, wasps are often called “meat bees” after their habit of preying on spiders, caterpillars, crickets, and flies, and feeding them to their young.

For their part, though, adult wasps feed only on sugar, preferring the juices of ripening fruit and something called honeydew: not the melon but a fluid secreted by aphids and other insects.

In late summer and early fall, when natural food supplies begin to dwindle, wasps can become angry little hunters, attacking your picnic lunch and sweetened iced tea with vigor.

Bee honeycomb | Vego Garden

Where they live: Bees make their honeycomb nests out of beeswax. Most bees are social; while some species prefer to live on their own, most live in a nest with a queen, a few hundred males called drones, and about 40,000 sterile females.

Considering their pollen-loving ways, honeybees typically live in gardens and other habitats near flowering plants. They often hide their nests inside tree cavities or other protected areas, like the eaves of a building. 

Bumble bees also live in wax nests, but they tend to build them in the higher branches of trees, in bird nests, and even in bird houses.

Yellow jackets and hornets make their nests by chewing wood fiber into a saliva-mixed pulp. They then fashion that paper-like substance into stacks of rounded combs covered by a sort of envelope. These nests can be found underground or high up in trees and may have several hundred thousand inhabitants each. 

Paper wasps create the same kind of structure as yellow jackets and hornets but don’t cover it with a protective envelope. They build on horizontal surfaces — think building eaves and overhangs, window and door frames, deck railings — and limit their numbers to fewer than 100 inhabitants per nest. 

Final thoughts

So the question isn’t really how they’re different, but how they make a difference. And in that way, they’re some of the Earth’s favorite things.  

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