Despite being part of the same order of insects (Hymenoptera), bees and wasps have well differentiated traits and habits; however, it is very common for people to confuse them. In this post, we will give some simple clues to differentiate between them, and deny some of the most common myths that revolve around these organisms.
Bees and wasps: how to tell them apart
Before differentiating them visually, we should start by classifying them.
Both bees and wasps are part of the Hymenoptera order, which are characterized by two pairs of membranous wings that remain coupled during the flight thanks to a series of tiny hooks (hamuli); in addition, they usually present antennae more or less long, of 9-10 segments at minimum, and an ovopositor that, in certain groups, has evolved to become a sting. Within this order, both bees and wasps are classified within the Apocrita suborder, which are characterized by having a “waist” that separates the thorax from the abdomen.
As for Apocrita, this suborder is traditionally divided in two groups: “Parasitica” and “Aculeata”, which we’ve already mentioned in the post “What are parasitoid insects and what are they useful for?“:
- “Parasitica”: very abundant superfamilies of wasps that parasite arthropods (chalcidoidea, ichneumonoidea, cynipoidea, etc.), except for the family Cynipidae (gall wasps), which parasite plants. None of these wasps have a sting, so no worries!
- “Aculeata”: includes most of the so-called wasps and bees (as well as ants), most of which have stings.
So far, we can see that there are a large number of parasitic wasps that differ clearly from the rest of bees and wasps with sting. If we continue to deepen, within the “Aculeata” we typically distinguish three superfamilies:
- Chrysidoidea: group formed by parasite wasps (many of them kleptoparasites) and parasitoids. The Chrysididae family (cuckoo wasps) is very popular due to its metallic coloration.
- Apoidea: includes bees and bumblebees, as well as the formerly known as “sphecoid wasps”, most of which have become part of another family of Apoidea (Crabronidae)
- Vespoidea: mostly formed by the typical stinged wasps (eg Vespidae family) and ants.
Simple keys to differentiate
After this review, many will think that this separation of wasps and bees is not so simple; and those of you who do will be right. While bees and bumblebees belong to a monophyletic lineage (this is, a group that includes the most recent common ancestor and all their descendants) and their characters are quite clear, the concept of wasp is somewhat vaguer.
Here are some basic morphological and behavioral traits to differentiate the most common wasps and bees. These traits are easy to spot in a simple way, and in the eyes of expert entomologists, they may be very general (there are many other complex characters that make it possible to differentiate them); however, they can be useful when you do not have much experience:
- Bees (and specially bumblebees) tend to be more robust and hairy than wasps. Wasps do not show “hair” and tend to be slender, with thorax and abdomen more widely separated.
- Most of bees present corporal adaptations for the collection of pollen, which they receive the name of scopa. In most, these are limited to the presence of many hairs on the hind legs. However, there are special cases: in the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), in addition to having pilosities, the tibias of the hind legs are very widened, forming a kind of blades with which they collect the pollen; on the other hand, the solitary bees of the Megachilidae family do not have pilosities on the hind legs, but a series of hairs on the ventral side of the abdomen.
- Most wasps have chewing mouthparts (jaws retain their function), while in most bees mouthparts are lapping type, as we explained in the post “Evolutionary adaptations of feeding in insects”.
- Some wasps, especially certain parasites and parasitoids, present a much simpler wing venation, represented by a few marginal veins. This is the case, for example, of the families Chalcidoidea and Cynipidae.
- If you see a slender hymenopteran with a very long “sting”, do not be afraid: it is probably the female of a parasitoid (eg a member of the family Ichneumonidae), and that long “sting” its ovipositor.
- Many wasps fly with legs more or less extended because, with rare exceptions, they are hunters.
- As we approach a plant with flowers, we will observe a large number of insects flying and perching on them. Almost certainly, most hymenopterans we will observe will be bees, since all adults and almost all larvae are phytophagous (they feed on plant products), namely nectar and pollen.
- If you’ve ever left food in the open, you must have seen a hymenopteran come to it. The larvae of most wasps are carnivorous, so adults take the least opportunity to catch prey for their offspring … or bits of something that you are eating.
This is not over yet: myth busting
Now that we know how to differentiate them roughly, let’s confirm or deny some of the most common myths around bees and wasps:
- “Wasps do not pollinate plants“
False. It is true that bees play a very important role in pollination: their feeding based on the intake of nectar and pollen makes them visit many flowers and, in addition, they present many pilosities in which it is adhered. However, most adult wasps also ingest nectar, in addition to other foods. Although they do not present as many pilosities as bees, the mere fact of visiting flowers causes that their body comes in contact with pollen and part of it is adhered.
There is also the opposite case: some bees such as Hylaeus and Nomada (the latter known as cuckoo bees, kleptoparasite bees whose larvae feed on pollen stored in nests of other solitary bees) do not have adaptations for pollen transport, and their appearance is closer to that of a wasp.
- “All bees are herbivorous, and all wasps carnivorous“
False. Although almost all bee larvae feed on pollen and nectar, while wasp larvae do on prey that adults hunt or parasite, there are exceptions. The larvae of gall wasps (Cynipidae family) feed on the plant tissue of the gall itself where they develop, whereas the larvae of a small group of bees of the Meliponini tribe (genus Trigona), present in the Neotropics and in The Indo-Australian region, feed on carrion, the only bees are known non-herbivorous.
- “Bees form colonies, and wasps are solitary“
False. There are both colonial and solitary wasps and bees. Honey bees are the most typical colonial bee, but there is an enormous diversity of solitary bees that build small nests in pre-established cavities or ones they dig. In the same way, there are also colonial wasps, like some of the genus Polistes (paper wasps) that build hives in which certain hierarchical roles are established (although they are usually smaller than those of bees).
- “All bees and wasps can sting“
False. The bees of the Meliponini tribe, also called stingless bees, have a sting so small that it lacks a defensive function, so they present other methods to defend themselves (biting with their jaws). In addition, females of some bees (eg Andrenidae family) do not present sting. Of course, all male bees and wasps have no sting, as that it is the modified ovipositor.
- “Bees die when they sting; wasps can sting several times”
Partly true. In honey bees of the species Apis mellifera, the surface of the sting is covered with a series of beards that give it the look of a saw, so that when removed, the sting is nailed to the surface of its victim, dragging behind it all the abdominal content to which the sting is adhered. In wasps, solitary bees and bumblebees, on the other hand, the surface of the sting is almost smooth or the beards are very small, being able to retract them and thus remove the sting without problems.
- “Wasps are more aggressive than bees“
It depends. Wasps commonly nest anywhere, so people and other animals are more likely to come into contact with them. By contrast, bees often have preferences for certain places, usually more protected, not being so exposed. However, this is not always how it happens: the african bees, to which we dedicated a post, can nest almost anywhere and they are very aggressive!
- “Wasps are more colorful than bees“
False. In fact, partially false. Having no apparent hair, the color of wasps is usually more striking in general terms. However, there are genera of bees, such as the solitary Anthidium (which present a very striking abdominal coloration) or the orchid bees, which look similiar to wasps. In the same way, there are wasps of dark coloration and less jazzy.
. . .
Despite there are much more differences between bees and wasps, we hope these tips can help you to tell them apart…and to love them the same way!
- Michener, C. D. (2000). The bees of the world (Vol. 1). JHU press.
- Landcare Research (landcareresearch.co.nz): Stings.
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): Wasp pollination.