They fly. They sting. They have a cool black and yellow color scheme. Every day in summer, you can encounter both wasps and bees, going about their business outdoors and sometimes even coming into the house. But although these creatures seem similar on the surface, there are actually some significant differences between them.
These differences matter. Because these animals fill different roles in the ecosystem, they behave differently and need to be dealt with differently. And in recent years, with crashing bee populations around the world, it’s become more necessary than ever to tell these creatures apart.
There are over 4000 different species of bee in North America, and most of them never come into any conflict with humans. But the more familiar species, bumblebees and honeybees, are bees that humans most commonly deal with.
Bumblebees have large round bodies covered in soft hair that makes them appear fuzzy. They are social insects, but generally form small colonies of less than 100 individuals. They feed on the nectar of flowers, and it’s this behavior that makes them so valuable as pollinators.
Honeybees are smaller than bumblebees, with a more slender body shape. While not as fuzzy as bumblebees, they are still covered in hair. Like bumblebees, they feed on nectar and bring it back to the colony to turn it into honey. Honeybees were brought to North America by European settlers and were unknown on the continent before this time.
Honeybees are extremely important pollinators of food crops, and so they have an essential role in food production. While they are capable of stinging in defence of the colony, they are not aggressive animals.
Wasps are another diverse group of insects, and only a handful of species are of concern to humans. Like bees, they are social insects that will defend their colony. Like bees, they are capable of stinging. But wasps are far more aggressive than bees and are therefore much more likely to hurt people.
Wasps are actually closely related to ants. In fact, the two species resemble one another. Especially if you look at a winged ant. Like ants, wasps are omnivorous, which means they will eat a broad range of different foods. In fact, one of the main food sources for wasps is other insects, which they will actively go out hunting for. Just like bees, wasps love sugar, and so sweet drinks and food will often draw them close to people. But they are also attracted to meat, which makes them the scourge of many backyard barbecues.
Bees vs Wasps
There are no good guys or bad guys in the natural world. Every animal out there is just trying to survive as best it can. But it’s difficult not to think of creatures that can hurt us as bad guys. And in the case of bees and wasps, it can be hard not to pick a side.
Bees are essential to human food production. They are generally not aggressive unless they feel that their nest is threatened, and this can usually be easily avoided. Give bees plenty of space, and they’ll leave you alone. Also, they’re cute and furry.
Wasps are not. And because they consume a broader range of food, they are more likely to come into conflict with humans when they try to steal a meal from us. Also, while most bees have a single sting which, when deployed, will kill the bee, wasps can sting multiple times without being harmed by the experience. As a result, wasps are far more likely to sting when provoked.
Harmless Honey Bees?
Honeybees have been semi-domesticated for thousands of years, and have evolved alongside humans in a way that wasps haven’t. Less aggressive than wasps, these creatures pollinate our food and also produce delicious honey. But that doesn’t mean honeybees are harmless.
In 1956, the Africanized honeybee was introduced to Brazil. This hybrid species was created by intentional cross-breeding to increase honey production. But it resulted in a bee that, while it looks identical to a regular honeybee, is far more aggressive and can even be deadly.
Since 1985, this hybrid species has been spreading through the southern states. There are currently populations in Texas, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, and parts of California. These bees are able to out compete the resident honeybees in these areas and have become a major pest. By swarming people and repeatedly stinging them, these bees can send a human into anaphylactic shock and potentially even kill them. It’s estimated that to date, these bees have killed a thousand people worldwide.
Save the Bees
If you don’t live in an area is home to Africanized honeybees, you have very little to fear from the regular variety. What’s far more damaging to humans than a population of honeybees is the absence of them. Without their pollination, several important food crops can’t reproduce. And all over the world, honeybee populations are collapsing. Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon that is still not fully understood, but it leads to bees abandoning their colonies and disappearing.
So if you encounter an active honeybee colony, try to give them some space and let them do their thing. Only if the colony is within the walls of your home will you need to take action against the bees. And even then, there are humane ways to remove the nest without destroying it. Beekeepers can help with this, since they are often happy to add more bees to their hives.
Wasps, on the other hand? Do your worst.
Wasp sting?!!! — check out my article all about this topic here: https://medium.com/@crosfieldd/treating-wasp-stings-cf1fe1246a9a