Bees, Hornets and Wasps of the World

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You might already know that there are different types of bees out there, but which ones are important to our ecosystems, which ones are endangered, which ones make honey, and which ones should you worry about if you ever see it on a hike?

Often, a wandering human will confuse a bee, wasp, hornet, or other flying insect to its and their detriment. This list of different types of bees, photos, and descriptions can help you with bee and wasp identification. In this bee guide, we’ve included pictures of wasps and hornets, too, so that you can watch out for the species often mistaken for bees.

To Begin: Bees vs. Wasps vs. Hornets

First, learn how to spot a bee vs. wasp vs. hornet, as each are very different and often confused.

Bees

Bees are flying pollinators in the clade Anthophila, which is comprised of 20,000 known species. They feed on nectar and pollen, shifting pollen from plant to plant, pollinating the plants which thereby results in fruit and food for us humans.

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Source: Alvesgaspar (Wikimedia Commons)

What is the difference between a wasp and a bee? There are several key differences in bees vs. wasps, both physically and behaviorally, but the most important difference is this: Bees eat nectar and pollen, whereas wasps are predators that prey on other insects.

Bees are typically hairy and round, with flat, wide legs. Wasps are smooth and often cylindrical, with waxy legs. The most cited difference in the wasp vs. bee discussion is that honey bees will often die after the first sting and that wasps will continue to sting again and again; that, however, depends on the species. Sometimes a bee won’t die, but its stinger usually does have a one-time use, sticking in the skin or body of whatever it stings. Note that some species of bee don’t even have stingers!

It’s in bee vs. wasp behavior that you see jarring differences. As a general, oversimplified rule, wasps tend to be much, much more aggressive, and bees tend to only attack after being bothered. This depends on the specific species.

What about a bee vs. hornet? Hornets are a larger, social subset of wasps. They’re similar to bees in that they are social, but they’re incredibly aggressive and their stings are often a great deal more dangerous than bee stings. Often hornets will systematically kill bees.

Do all bees make honey? No, not all bees make honey. A few species of bee do, like European honey bees. Honey bees live in groups of more than 75,000 individuals, often in a hive where they store lots of honey and energy for their colony. Other species of bee roam in tiny groups or alone, living in colonies too small to make honey.

Note that wasps and hornets do not make honey, but sometimes steal it.

Wasps

A wasp is any insect in the Hymenoptera order and specifically the suborder of Apocrita, which is neither an ant nor a bee. That leaves a wide variety of tens of thousands of wasp species.

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Source: Alvesgaspar (Wikimedia Commons)

Is a wasp a bee? No, wasps are not bees, nor a type of bee. Wasps, bees, and hornets all come from the Hymenoptera order of insects, specifically the suborder of Apocrita. So, in scientific terms, they’re close relatives, but they’re not the same. Some wasps might have colorations that are very similar to some bees, but other species resemble ants more closely.

We touched on some wasp vs. bee characteristics, citing the fact that bees feed on nectar and pollen, making them excellent pollinators, and that wasps are usually predators, eating other insects. Note that, even though they are largely predatory or parasitic, some species of wasps do help spread pollen inadvertently. It’s just that they are often far less hairy, so not as efficient as bees at this.

It’s also important to note that wasps do not make honey. They might live in paper nests that look like combs, but they’re meant to store larvae, not honey.

What is the difference between a wasp and a hornet? There isn’t one, essentially; all hornets are wasps. Hornets are a small subset of wasps that are usually not native to the United States. They’re relatives to the yellowjacket, which is another subset of large and predatory wasp. When it comes to a wasp vs. hornet, both can be a part of an unfortunate encounter, but hornets are well-known for being larger, more vicious, and not alone!

Hornets

Hornets are social wasps in the genera Vespa and Provespa: 25 species total. They’re typically larger and more dangerous than other forms of wasp. Adult hornets themselves prefer saps, rotting fruit, and honey. They attack other large insects and masticate them, feeding the parts to developing larvae.

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Source: PiccoloNamek (Wikimedia Commons)

What is the difference between bees and hornets? They might have similar coloration, but it’s very important to know the difference between a hornet vs. bee. If ever accidentally encountering a swarm: Hornet stings can be more deadly to humans.

Hornets will systematically kill bees for their honey, sometimes destroying whole hives just for honey and larvae. About 30 Japanese hornets, for instance, can destroy a hive of 10,000 bees in about an hour. In a fight, hornets vs. bees, hornets, as excellent predators, usually win. There are exceptions, though.

Hornets are more damaging to humans too, as some species will burrow themselves into the pulp of certain fruits and then attack in defense when happened across. By-and-large, they will not attack when not provoked; however, they will be very aggressive in defending their nests if they feel it is in danger.

Compendium of Local Species of North America

Now that we have some of the basics out of the way, we can look at local types of bees. Pictures of bees can help us best see the variety of the different types of bees in North America. This is just a short introduction into what’s out there. In addition to bee types, we’ve also included common wasps and hornets.

DISCLAIMER: Please do not use this list to diagnose medical issues or consider taking down nests. This list is purely for educational purposes. If stung, contact a medical facility. If encountering an unknown nest or hive, contact your local animal control center.

Common North American Bees

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Source: Richard Bartz (Wikimedia Commons)

Western Honey Bee

Apis mellifera

The Western or European honey bee is the most common honey bee in America. It stores a large quantity of honey over the winter and was one of the first-ever domesticated insects. It is the single most important pollinator for agriculture globally.

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Source: Jeffrey W. Lotz (Wikimedia Commons)

Africanized Honey Bee

Hybrid of Apis mellifera and A.m. scutellata

The second of America’s two main honey bee types, this hybrid has been referred to as the “killer bee.” They are more reactive and defensive, giving victims about ten times the stings than European honey bees, and can chase a person a quarter of a mile.

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Source: John Baker (Wikimedia Commons)

Golden Northern Bumblebee

Bombus fervidus

This important pollinator can be found across North America has seen a recent decline in population, and is quite vulnerable. A common question is “Do bumblebees make honey?” They do; however, they don’t produce nearly enough as other species to make them useful as honey producers.

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Source: Insects Unlocked (Wikimedia Commons)

American Bumblebee

Bombus pensylvanicus

Native to the East coast of the U.S., this bumblebee is also, unfortunately, threatened. They have been deteriorating since the 1940s and have suffered from a lack of genetic diversity.

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Source: Bob Peterson (Wikimedia Commons)

Common Eastern Bumblebee

Bombus impatiens

This resident of the East coast is fairly adaptable and can even live in suburban and urban landscapes successfully.

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Source: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (Flickr)

Orchard Mason Bee

Osmia lignaria

Also known as the “blue orchard bee,” this non-social pollinator usually nests in reeds and natural holes rather than hives. They do not make honey.

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Source: Beatriz Moisset (Wikimedia Commons)

Hornfaced Bee

Osmia cornifrons

A mason bee that was introduced to the U.S. from Japan, these solitary bees hide in holes in trees.

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Source: Judy Gallagher (Flickr)

Eastern Carpenter Bee

Xylocopa virginica

With powerful jaws and mandibles, carpenter bees create tunnels out of wood. Luckily for us humans, they seem to dislike paint and finishers.

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Source: Bob Peterson (Wikimedia Commons)

Southern Carpenter Bee

Xylocopa micans

The black-colored Southern carpenter bee is like most other carpenter bees, in that it is a solitary bee that doesn’t live in a colony.

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Valley Carpenter Bee

Xylocopa varipuncta

This bee is special in that it can fly at high temperatures without overheating, making it ideal for the super-hot deserts of the southwestern U.S.

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Source: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (Flickr)

Bellflower Resin Bee

Megachile campanulae

This bee use plant resins to form their nests.

Sweat Bees:

Sweat bees are a common name of various species that enjoy salty human sweat.

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Source: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (Flickr)

Lasioglossum vierecki

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Source: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (Flickr)

Lasioglossum leucozonium

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Source: linsepatron (Wikimedia Commons)

Halictus rubicundus

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Source: Mike (Wikimedia Commons)

Agapostemon texanus

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Source: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (Flickr)

Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee

Megachile rotundata

Originally hailing from Europe, this tiny bee helps to pollinate several vegetables and sprouts, like carrots and alfalfa.

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Source: Derrick Ditchburn (Wikimedia Commons)

Western Leafcutting Bee

Megachile perihirta

Living in the Western United States, this bee burrows in sand, soil, or rotted plants in small groups.

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Squash Bee

Peponapis pruinosa

This species, also called the Eastern cucurbit bee, is a solitary species that’s fond of squash plants, gourds, and pumpkins.

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Source: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (Flickr)

Southeastern Blueberry Bee

Habropoda laboriosa

This is a very efficient pollinator of wild blueberries in the Southern U.S., as it engages in the rare practice of buzz pollination, which dislodges more pollen with the exact vibration of its wings.

Common North American Wasp Species

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Source: Beatriz Moisset (Wikimedia Commons)

Eastern Yellowjacket

Vespula maculifrons

Chances are, if you’ve sat outside at a good old American picnic and there’s something buzzing and bothering you, it’s likely a yellowjacket. These social wasps live in large colonies, are colored similarly to bees, and can inflict painful stings. They love dead insects, fruits, and, occasionally, sugary beverages.

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Source: Marvin Smith (Wikimedia Commons)

Bald-Faced Hornet

Dolichovespula maculata

This species is not actually a “hornet,” but a wasp. It goes by many names, like “blackjacket,” “white-faced hornet,” and “bull wasp.” They live in colonies of about 500 workers and aggressively defend their nests.

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Source: Barbara Eckstein (Flickr)

Potter Wasp

Eumenes fraternus

There are many types of potter wasps, but this local breed creates miniature pots out of mud, where it lays its egg. It also tosses in a live caterpillar, which its larvae feed on.

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Source: Hectonichus (Wikimedia Commons)

Giant Ichneumon

Rhyssa persuasoria

Also known as the “sabre wasp,” this large wasp can sometimes be confused for a large mosquito.

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Source: Davehood (Wikimedia Commons)

Tarantula Hawk

Pepsis grossa

Living in southern states like Texas, these wasps prey on ... tarantulas?!

Common (North American Hornets)

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Source: Richard Bartz (Wikimedia Commons)

European Hornet

Vespa crabro

The European hornet is the only true hornet found in North America. It’s known to kill honey bees (as in this picture). If you see its paper nest, be careful!

Unusual and Foreign Bee, Wasp, & Hornet Species

As globalization increases, it may be possible to see some foreign invasive species hit the skies. Most hornets and almost all sting-less bees are not native and not usually found in North America. How many types of bees are there? Well, there are at least 20,000 bees and many, many more forms of wasps. Luckily, the U.S. is not usually home to the largest or most dangerous varieties.

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Source: NUMBER7isBEST (Wikimedia Commons)

For example, the most dangerous hornet is not from here: the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). It’s a very large honey bee murderer, and can kill a human after a few different stings. In terms of just venom toxicity, though, neighbor Vespa luctuosa is just a hair worse, making it the most dangerous wasp. That being said, the Japanese Vespa mandarinia is responsible for more deaths.

Humans and Bees

What do bees do for humans? Well, if you like eating food, a great deal.

Bees are some of the most important pollinators, transferring pollen and seeds from flower to flower. In order for 30% of all crops to produce flowers and then fruit, cross-pollination needs to happen. If all bees died overnight, human beings would not survive, losing a third of all food sources: almonds, pumpkins, avocados, cucumbers, grapes, apples, watermelons, and coffee, just to name a few. That doesn’t even touch on other useful products like cotton and certain medicines.

So, how do honey bees help humans? It’s far beyond the ability to eat delicious honey.

And 25% of the managed bee population has died off since 1990.

While wasps are far less of a help and more of a nuisance in terms of agriculture, these insects are vital to keeping populations of other, more problematic species low.

So, before thwacking the offending buzzer, consider allowing the pests a safe escape route, if possible. Also, consider whether or not it’s totally necessary when considering removing a nest versus a beehive.

Risks to Honey Bee Populations

Since we now understand the honey bee’s importance to humans, it’s clear we need to do something about them. Are honey bees endangered? And why are they dying off?

Naturally, it depends on the species; today, most native species risk extinction.

There are many reasons, but the harsh pesticides used on crops are the most likely source of the issues. Neonicotinoids, which are widely used pesticides, are particularly to blame. Climate change has also had a hugely negative impact, and the combination of the two has been horrific for bee populations.

What can individuals do to help?

Well, for one, insisting on politicians and legislatures to take action to help bee population can help fight the issue of neonicotinoids. Encouraging conservation efforts in general is important to ensure we’ll still be able to eat in a few years. It can be also be helpful to create safe sources for pollen and nectar in urban settings, or bee gardens. Leave places for bees to rest and drink water as well, especially during heat waves.

A Note About Stings

Naturally, since some people are highly allergic to bees, it’s important to stay safe, even when trying to help out bee populations.

Why do bees sting humans? Bees and, for the most part, wasps, only sting when they feel threatened. It’s important to stay calm. Remember: Even one of the most painful hornet stings won’t immediately kill a human unless rapid anaphylactic shock results.

If you find you’re being pursued by an aggressive group of bees, wasps, or hornets, don’t scream or flail your arms, and use these steps. If you just encounter a bee or wasp and it’s not pursuing you, don’t swat at it and remain calm. Move away slowly, with your eyes and mouth closed if possible.

DISCLAIMER: Again, we must reiterate not to use our list to diagnose medical issues. If you have had a severe reaction to a bee, wasp, or hornet sting, contact a medical facility immediately.

When starting spring and summer activities outdoors, protecting yourself, your pets and children should be a top priority, especially if someone you love has an allergy to bee stings. If there is a known allergy, it may be important to have an EpiPen handy – know that, in some states, an ambulance will not be legally allowed to carry or administer an EpiPen. Consider building and staying near areas of your backyard that are covered by screens, such as a wooden gazebo. If you already have a gazebo or a shed, be sure to check it frequently for any holes or nests, especially before having an outdoor event.