What’s the Difference Between Bees, Hornets, and Wasps?

(Last Updated On: August 31, 2018)

What’s the Difference Between Bees, Hornets, and Wasps?
If you use the terms “bees,” “hornets,” and “wasps” interchangeably, you may be surprised to learn that they really aren’t the same thing. While a lot of people realize that bees are different, many don’t fully understand how. And hornets and wasps still regularly get classed into a category that is one in the same. If we are going to make sense of why they are different, it’s time to get technical and focus on the important details. Here we’ll outline the difference between bees, hornets, and wasps.

What’s the Difference Between Bees, Hornets, and Wasps?

What Are Wasps?

A member of the Vespidae family, wasps are a predatory insect and are part of the Hymenoptera order. They come in a wide variety of types. Some are wingless and only crawl, while others live underfoot, burrowing into the ground. Of course, you also have the more familiar wasps that fly around, such as yellow jackets or the famous Asian Giant Hornet, which can be up to two inches long!

Wasps are predators, with some being social, while others are solitary. The solitary ones are often parasiticidal: they lay eggs in or on other insects and use this as the place to grow their young. The social species build nests indoors or out, and they feed on nectar and fruit or scavenged insects. They are identified by their slender body shape, dangling, long legs, and are often brightly colored and easy to spot. Maybe you’re familiar with wasps flying around your backyard BBQ?

What Are Hornets?

This is where some of the confusion lies, as hornets are actually a subset of wasps – there are over 100,000 known species of wasps, and hornets are one of these subspecies. Just like other wasps, hornets are also in the Vespidae family, and are a predatory insect. They often look similar to other wasps, but they tend to differentiate themselves by having a thicker and more rounded abdomen and a wider, fatter head. The hornet also follows a different life cycle than that of many others in the wasp family.  

Hornets are social insects, and will sting when they are endangered or provoked. They tend to act very aggressively towards any enemy or perceived enemy. Hornets prey on smaller insects and sweet plant matter, and live in nests that they typically build outside in trees and shrubs, or under your deck or eaves around your home. They use their paper-looking nests to lay their eggs, in a section built specifically for housing their developing offspring.

What Are Bees?

Bees are the odd one out of the three. A member of the Apoidea family, these flying insects can be considered relatives of wasps, and also ants, but are very distinct from both. Bees play a crucial role in the Earth’s ecosystem due to their pollination of plants. Without bees, we would not be able to sustain food development throughout the world.

Similar to wasps and hornets, bees are capable of stinging a perceived a threat, but they can only sting once and will then die after attacking. Because of this, bees tend to be less aggressive than wasps if left unprovoked.

Like wasps, bees are also a member of the large Hymenoptera order of winged insects. However, their physical bodies are quite different than many of the other insects in this order. Bees tend to be hairy and fat, and may be a solid brown, black, or have subtle yellow stripes. Furthermore, bees live in hives, where they produce honey and can have over 75,000 members in their colony.

Clearly, there is a difference between bees, hornets, and wasps. While you may have used the terms interchangeably in the past, you now have some basic information to help differentiate between the three. The next time you see a flying insect pestering friends at a BBQ, you’ll know what all the buzz is about.

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About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.