Bee vs. Wasp vs. Hornet

Visual representation of the size difference of a giant Asian hornet and a bee

In spite of the fact that bees, wasps, and hornets appear and behave quite similarly, they are all different and each play a specific role in the ecosystem. There is evidence that bees and wasps evolved separately hundreds of millions of years ago. [1] 

Bees are vegetarians and feed their young with pollen, whereas wasps and hornets are carnivorous and feed their young with other insects. These species all have one characteristic in common: the females sting.

What Is a Wasp?

A wasp belongs to the genus Vespula, and its species name is Vespula vulgaris. Wasps are part of the Hymenoptera order of the animal kingdom. 

There are two subcategories of wasps: social and solitary. Within the family Vespidae, there are approximately 1,000 species of social wasps. Hornets and yellow jackets are examples of social wasps. Although all hornets are wasps, not all wasps are hornets.

The social wasp lives in colonies, in a similar manner to the bees and ants. The majority of wasps in a colony work; the nest queen’s daughters who do not reproduce build the nest as well as gather food and care for the queen’s offspring.

The colony of a social wasp lasts only one year. Every year, they construct a new nest and do not reuse their old nests. Only fertilized queen wasps survive the winter; all other workers will die during the first frost.

In contrast, solitary wasps forage alone and build nests only for their own young. Occasionally, solitary wasps nest with other wasps, but each wasp must take care of its own larvae. Solitary wasps are the most common species of wasp.

What Is a Hornet?

Large social wasps in the genus Vespa are considered true hornets. European hornets (also known as Vespa crabro) are the only true hornets found in North America. Hornets are wasps and therefore belong to the family Vespidae and the order Hymenoptera.

As a result of their aggressive nature, hornets have an unfavorable reputation. Although hornets are territorial over their nests, they do not exhibit aggressive behavior when left undisturbed. 

However, hornets (and other wasp species) are more beneficial to the ecosystem than most people realize. Hornets kill flies, bees, and other insects. In contrast to other wasps that only kill other insects for their larvae to consume, hornets feed them to their young as well as consume other insects themselves. 

The queen hornet is the only female in the colony that reproduces. Other females of the colony that do not reproduce constitute the workers in the hornet colony. 

The worker hornets will build the hive, gather food, feed the young, and protect the colony. There are fewer males in hornet colonies. Males are primarily responsible for mating with queens, and they die shortly after mating.       

What Is a Bee?

Like wasps and hornets, bees belong to the Hymenoptera order. Unlike wasps and hornets, bees belong to the genus Apis. Among the most common types of bees are western honeybees (Apis mellifera) and bumblebees (Bombus affinis). 

It is important to note that not all bees are black and yellow; some bee species have orange or red bands. A number of bee species, such as bumblebees, have fuzzy bodies in order to assist pollen in sticking to them. 

Bumblebees and honey bees differ in a number of ways in their appearance. In general, bumblebees are larger and fuzzier than honey bees. In addition, honey bee wings are more translucent than bumblebee wings.

How to Identify a Wasp

The difference between a wasp and a bee can be identified by the fact that wasps generally have less hair compared to bees. 

Additionally, wasps have brighter colors and a narrow waist, which connects the thorax and abdomen. The majority of wasp species have a black and yellow color pattern.

Close up of a wasp consuming some liquid
The wasp is a social insect that lives in colonies of up to 10,000 individuals.

The flight of a wasp can also be used to identify it, as they fly in a slightly different manner than bees. During flight, wasps’ legs hang downward and they are known to be more aggressive than bees.

A wasp’s size can vary depending on its species, ranging from half an inch to 1.8 inches. Cicada killers are one of the largest species of wasps, growing up to 1.5 inches in length.

How To Identify a Hornet

Hornets can be identified primarily by their size and they are among the largest members of the wasp family, with the largest species growing as long as 2.2 inches.

Other insects, such as yellow jackets, are frequently mistaken for hornets. Worldwide, however, there are only about 20 species of true hornets.

As with wasps, hornets have a thin waist, but their abdomens are rounder and thicker than those of wasps.[3] 

Close up of a hornet, resting on wood
It is common to associate hornets with aggression, but they are only likely to attack if they perceive that they are being threatened or that their nest is at risk.

A hornet can also be distinguished from a wasp based on its color. Typically, hornets are black and white in color. It is not true for every species of hornet, so examining the body is the best method of identifying it.  

Wasps and hornets have very similar reproductive cycles, except that hornets are almost always social and live in colonies. They build their nests from chewed-up wood, which are usually placed high above the ground in trees, utility poles, and roof eaves.

How to Identify a Bee

It is easy to identify a bee by its body, which is thicker than wasps and hornets, with no thinning between the abdomen and thorax. There is also hair on bees, whether it is fuzzy, as on bumblebees, or less noticeable, as on honeybees.

The coloration of a bee is typically less subtle than that of a wasp or hornet. It is possible for some bees to be black and brownish rather than black and bright yellow, as one might see on wasps.

Because bees collect pollen to feed their young, they are likely to be found around flowers and other plants. There is a distinction between this and hornets, since they are typically not found hovering around flowers.

Close up of a honey bee resting on some wood
Did you know that bees have 170 odorant receptors? This means bees have a remarkable sense of smell!

Bees vary in length according to their species. The size of bumblebees and carpenter bees is typically greater than that of honey bees. A queen bee is the largest bee in the hive, as is the case with hornets and wasps. 

Generally, bees are not aggressive unless their queen is threatened. A honey bee’s stinger is barbed, which means the stinger, venom sac, and internal organs will detach and cause the bee to die. 

As carpenter bees and bumblebees do not possess barbed stingers, they can sting multiple times (similar to wasps and hornets).

Difference Between a Wasp, Hornet, and a Bee

This table showcases all the key differences between a wasp, a hornet, and a bee.

Wasp Hornet Bee
Size 1” or less Up to 1.25” Anywhere from less than ½” to over 1.05”
Color Black and yellow, but can also be red, brown, or a metallic blue Black/brown and white, depending on the species Black and yellow Some species are more brown and golden colors
Nests Paper-like Made of wood and saliva Paper-like Made of wood pulp Found high off the ground Combs made out of wax
Diet Nectar, sugar-rich plants, sap Other insects are fed to larvae Sugar and sap, with a preference towards other insects Pollen, nectar, and honey
Lifespan 12 - 22 days on average (Queens can live up to one year) 12 - 22 days on average (Queens can live up to one year) 5 - 6 weeks on average (Queens can live up to 3 years)
Sting Aggressive and territorial Can sting multiple times Aggressive and territorial Can sting multiple times with painful stings Typically not aggressive, but can sting multiple times (with the exception of the honey bee)


[1] Museum of Earth [2] Terro [3] Diffen

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