Bees, Wasps, and Hornets-Oh My! How to Spot the Difference

Written by Chem-Wise on . Posted in Blog

During the spring and summer, you love to bask in the sunshine as much as possible. You sit in your favorite chair and sip lemonade, or perhaps you run on the grass and play games with your children.

But while you’re enjoying that light breeze on your face, you happen to feel a tickle on your arm.


Something stung you. The red bump starts to swell, and then the insect flies past your nose.

Not sure what it was? Use the following guide to help you determine the culprit.


Chicago is home to a variety of bees due to the city’s hobbyists and green entrepreneurs. Many restaurants rely on the natural honey to create cocktails or honey wine.

Yet while beekeepers tend to their hives in their backyards and balconies, you can’t help but wonder if the insect that stung you was an escapee or a natural local.

Bumble Bee

Bumblebees are fat and furry in appearance, with black and yellow (and occasionally orange) markings. They are social bees that most often live in the wild. They live in nests with 50 to 400 bees, and these nests tend to stay mostly in the ground or slightly higher. They only make small amounts of a honey-like substance that they eat themselves.

Though bumblebees have a loud buzz, they are not aggressive in nature. However, their smooth stinger enables them to sting more than once if aggravated.

Carpenter Bee

Carpenter bees look like bumblebees in size and appearance. They are fuzzy and large with black and yellow markings. However, unlike bumblebees, they are solitary creatures. They build nests in trees and in the frames of buildings where they can drill into the wood.

The male carpenter bee does not have a stinger, but it may approach people who move quickly or wave a hand in the air. If you’re approached, don’t panic; the bees are harmless. The female carpenter bee can sting, but seldom does. You must handle and provoke her a great deal before she will sting.

Honey Bee

Honeybees are smaller and slimmer than bumblebees, but they’re not as angular as wasps. They live in hives of up to 50,000 or 60,000 bees, which are often tended by beekeepers. As their name implies, honeybees make a lot of honey, which beekeepers can harvest to sell or eat.

Unfortunately, many honeybees are dying due to Colony Collapse disorder. And because they have barbed stingers, they can only sting once. The stinger lodges into its attacker, causing the stinger to rip from its body. Because of this, honeybees only sting as a last resort to protect their colony.


While bees tend to be harmless, wasps are often more aggressive. You can often tell the difference between wasps and bees by their hair and body shape. Wasps tend to be slimmer than bees, with elongated bodies. They also lack the body hair that makes bees look fuzzy. Yellow Jackets

True to their name, yellow jackets are black with prominent yellow stripes. They have narrow wings that fold longitudinally when resting. You can recognize a yellow jacket by the way it flies: a rapid, side-to-side pattern right before it lands.

Unlike bees, yellow jackets do not produce honey. Rather, they scavenge and eat meats and sweets, which is why you can often find them in parks or picnic areas.

Yellow jackets create enclosed nests below ground, which they defend aggressively. Because they can repeatedly sting if provoked, you should take care to check for yellow jacket nests before mowing your lawn.

Cicada Killer Wasps

Chicago is home to unique wasps known as cicada killer wasps. Unlike other wasp species, many nature-lovers appreciate these insects for the work that they do. Rather than attacking humans, cicada killer wasps kill cicadas that invade and damage neighborhood trees.

Before you grab the bug spray, double check the wasp’s appearance. Cicada killer wasps are large, nearly two inches long, with distinctive black and yellow stripes and reddish-brown eyes and legs. They are mostly solitary insects that nest in bare soil and along edges of flower beds. Hornets

Hornets, or bald-faced hornets, look much like yellow jackets. They have black and yellow (and occasionally white) markings. However, hornets are often longer and thicker than yellow jackets, and their sting is often more powerful.

Unlike yellow jackets, hornets do not scavenge, so they are less likely to show up at your favorite outdoor activities. And unlike cicadas, hornets prefer to build their nests high above ground, such as high in eaves and trees.

See These Insects Buzzing Around Your Home?

While some bees, wasps, and hornets are harmless, you might still have difficulty spotting the difference. If you worry about an insect infestation on your home or property, don’t hesitate to call pest control, just in case. A professional can help you safely remove the insects and protect your home and family.