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How to Tell the Difference between Bees and Wasps

Posted on July 31st, 2014 by Panther Pest Control Team
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Summer is now well under way and along with the warm, sunny weather comes the usual problem of hoards of stinging insects. They come in all shapes and sizes and can inflict differing levels of sting.

Two insects that are commonly mistaken for one another are bees and wasps. Imagine yourself dreaming away the day on your sun lounger enjoying a nice cool drink, when you hear an unmistakeable buzzing around your ears. You take a swipe and find you’ve been stung on the arm by whoever flew by. But was it a bee or a wasp?

The chances are it was most likely a wasp as they are far more aggressive than bees and really don’t take kindly to being swiped at. Also wasps are more attracted by sugary food and drink whereas bees much prefer flowers.


Image by: Coniferconifer (top: bee), Steffen239 (bottom: wasp)

Both hailing from the order Hymenoptera, they both belong to the suborder Apocrita. A characteristic of this suborder is a narrow waist which joins the thorax and the abdomen. Bees and wasps also have larvae that look like maggots and inject their venom using a modified ovipositer. Aside from these similarities bees and wasps have a number of differences.


Both penetrate the skin of their victim with backward pointing barbs on a stinger. Wasps have small barbs and when they sting you the stinger can be removed quite easily. Honeybee workers stingers are pulled from their abdomen and once they have stung you they die. Other bees are able to live to sting again, as are wasps.


The body of a wasp is smooth and slender whereas a bee is much rounder and fairly hairy. Both have a narrow waist joining the thorax to the abdomen. Being a predator a wasp has a body beautifully streamlined and sleek for hunting.


Bees legs are hairy and wasps have only a few. The back legs of a bee are flat which make them perfect for gathering pollen and the addition of hair means they are good at carrying it around from one flower to the next.


Pollen and nectar are a bee’s favourite food. Wasps feed on other insects such as flies, arthropods and caterpillars. Occasionally they feed on nectar and pollen but are generally scavengers, that love your sweet sticky food.


Finding their nests will help you distinguish between bees and wasps. A bees nest is built out of wax cells stacked one on top of the other. Honeybees manufacture their own nest but other bees use what is already available around them such a tree cavities, buildings and even a hole in the ground. Wasps use a papery pulp to construct their nest. The pulp is made from their own saliva and chewed up fibres. They prefer to construct their homes in out of the way places such as under your decking or the back of your garden shed.


For most people the damage resulting from a wasp or bee sting is temporary pain. For a limited number of the population, one to two people out of every thousand, a sting causes an allergic reaction, often life threatening. When a sting is inflicted venom is injected into the skin causing pain. Pain receptors in the skin are stimulated by a chemical called melittin leading to an uncomfortable sensation. The initial pain is short lived and usually only lasts for a few minutes followed by a dull ache. The tissue can still be sensitive to the touch several days later.

Our bodies have an amazing automatic response to the injection of the venom, wherein fluid is liberated from the blood to flush the venom from our system. This is why the sting area becomes red and swollen. When you’re stung by a certain species for the first time the swelling will be large around the sting area or a whole part of the body. It is also likely to be very itchy. To help our bodies dispose of the venom over the counter oral anti-histamines are very effective as is a localised cream application. It’s important not to itch or scratch the sting site as microbes on the skins surface can be introduced into the wound and result in a nasty infection.