Bee, Wasp and Hornet Facts, Identification and Control
Scientific Order: Hymenoptera
Family and Common Species by classification:
Over 20,000 species divided into seven families, categorized in the clade Anthophila within the larger superfamily Apoidea. The most common honeybee, the Western or European honeybee, is Apis mellifera.
Bumblebees, which also feed on nectar, belong to the Bombus genus within the family Apidae (itself a part of the superfamily Apoidea). There are 46 species of bumblebee in North America. The most common in New York is the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens).
“Wasp” is a broad term for any insect in the order Hymenoptera and the suborder Apocrita that is not a bee or an ant. All eusocial wasps and most commonly known wasps belong to the Vesipidae family of wasps. This family includes the common wasp or European wasp, Vespula vulgaris. You may also encounter the Eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons), which is a type of wasp found in eastern North America.
The only “true” hornet found in North America is the European hornet, Vespa crabro. Yellowjackets are commonly mistaken for hornets because they are similar in appearance. Yellowjackets commonly referred to as hornets in North America belong to the genus Dolichovespula. The most common “hornet” encountered in New York is the Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), which is a type of yellowjacket.
Size: Range in size (depending on type) from 9.5 to 19 millimeters long. Queen honeybees are the largest; drones are the smallest. Bumblebees range from 12 to 21 millimeters long. Queens are the largest, workers are the smallest.
Color: Either black or brown with burnt yellow or golden brown stripes. Honeybees and bumblebees will also have gold, black, or brown-ish fuzz on their upper abdomens.
Size: Worker wasps, the most common type of wasp encountered, are around 12 to 17 millimeters long. Queen wasps can be up to around 20 millimeters long.
Color: Wasps have distinct black-and-yellow stripes running along their abdomen and thorax. Wasp stripes are more prominent than bees’, and the stripes are a brighter shade of yellow. A wasp’s abdomen is segmented into six distinct sections, each of which bears one black-and-yellow stripe. Wasp stripes and colors are generally easier to see than bees’, because wasps lack the fuzz bees have.
Size: Adult bald-faced hornets range from 13 to 20 millimeters long on average. Unlike bees and other wasps, bald-faced hornet queens are around the same size and length as their workers, though they’re usually still slightly larger.
Color: The name “bald-faced” is a reference to the fact that bald-faced hornets have a distinctive pale, white head, instead of the usual yellow coloring of most wasps. Bald-faced hornets’ stripes are also white instead of yellow. They only have three stripes, located near the bottom of their abdomens; unlike other wasps, the bald-faced hornet’s abdomen is most mono-colored black. Their thorax and legs also bear distinct white markings.
Behavior and Diet
Honeybees feed on nectar in flowers--pollinating them in the process. When worker honeybees ingest nectar, they store it in a second stomach and take it back to their hive. This second stomach uses enzymes to break down complex sugars in nectar into simpler ones and transforming it into honey. Honeybees create and store honey in order to have food over the winter.
Like honeybees, bumblebees subsist primarily on nectar. Bumblebees find pollinating flowers by communicating with each other, recognizing complex spatial and color patterns in flowers, and even sensing electrical fields that flowers produce. When they find a suitable flower, bumblebees either land on or hover near the flower and repeatedly dip their proboscis or “tongue” into the flower, lapping up its nectar.
Honeybees are commonly found around flowers and other pollen and nectar producing plants.
Bumblebees are commonly encountered in flowering gardens, especially around brightly-colored or pollen-producing flowers.
Wasps have a much more diverse diet than bees. Solitary wasps may feed on nectar produced by flowers, but they also eat garbage, fruit, carrion, honeydew, rotting food, and other pest insects.
Wasps are often considered beneficial pests, because they’re highly prevalent and efficient pest predators. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed on by some type of wasp.
Most wasps, including the European wasp, are considered opportunistic predators and scavengers. Their dietary flexibility means they can easily acclimate to an environment and find food there. Studies have shown that wasps use highly developed memory and learning abilities to optimize their foraging.
Whereas bees are mostly found around flowers, wasps can be found anywhere where they might find food. They’re particularly attracted to simple sugars such as those found in jelly, jam, soft drinks, and other sugary products.
As a wasp species, the bald-faced hornet’s diet and behavior resembles that of most wasps. As highly effective and opportunistic carnivorous predators, bald-faced hornets prey upon several insect types. Their broad diet depends largely on their environment and what’s available to them.
Bald-faced hornets are known to bring prey like insects and spiders, as well as pieces of fruit or meat, back to their colonies.
Adult bald-faced hornets often seek out nectar to feed to the larvae in their nests. Larvae subsist mainly on nectar, while adults are primarily carnivorous predators.
Honeybee hives typically contain 50,000 bees. Bumblebee hives are much smaller, consisting of as few as 50 or as many as 400 individual bees, though colonies may be smaller or much larger than average.
Honeybee and bumblebee colonies are eusocial, and broken up into different “castes,” in which each class performs a different roles. There is one queen bee, who is responsible for all egg laying and fertilizing--a honey queen bee can produce up to 1500 eggs per day!
Along with queens, colonies consist of male “drones” and female “workers.” Workers collect food, build and clean the hive, and generally do the work of running the colony. Worker bees are the most common bees in a colony, and are also the only type of bee with a stinger. Drones are primarily responsible for mating with the queens of other colonies. Drones do not mate with the queen of their colony.
During fertilization, virgin queen bees leave their colonies and seek out drone congregation areas, where they mate with drones from other colonies repeatedly. After mating, the queen returns to her colony and lays eggs in honeycombs produced by worker bees. The queen chooses which eggs to fertilize and which to leave unfertilized; unfertilized eggs become drones, while fertilized eggs become workers.
All honeybees undergo metamorphosis through the development stages of egg, larvae, pupa, and adult. The time required to complete metamorphosis depends on the caste of bee: drones take 24 days to develop, workers take 21, and queens take 15-16. Bumblebees go through a similar metamorphosis process, but it may take slighter longer.
Bee eggs look like rice and only measure 1 to 1.5 millimeters long. They hatch into larvae after about 3 days. Bee larvae are white and remain in their wax cells where they’re fed by workers. The different castes spend varying lengths of time in the larval stage. When they’re ready to enter the pupal stage, larvae straighten up, and workers cover them with wax.
Beneath their wax caps, larvae molt and turn into pupae. The pupae remain beneath the wax for varying lengths of time depending on caste until they complete development into adults. When ready, the adult bee molts out of its pupal form and chews its way out of its wax cap.
Adult honeybee queens may live for 3 to 4 years. Depending on when they’re active, workers may live for 6 to 7 weeks or up to 4 to 6 months. Drones die immediately upon mating with a queen, but if they don’t mate they could live for up to 4 months.
Bumblebee queens may live for around a year, though they hibernate in winter. Worker bumblebees’ lifespans vary based on species and specific duties. Some workers may live only 2 weeks, while some may survive about 6. Bumblebee drones only live for a few weeks.
The reproduction and life cycles of a wasp depends on whether that wasp is solitary or social. Most wasps are solitary, which means they mate and then forage alone, either building only a small nest for their own offspring or not building a nest at all.
Solitary wasps paralyze and then lay eggs on their prey, so that the resulting larvae may feed on the prey when they hatch.
Other wasps (including the european wasp) are social, which means they live in colonies with a queen, worker specializations, and defined mating rituals, like bees. Wasp colonies usually only last for one year, as only wasp queens hibernate.
Social wasp colonies work similarly to bumble colonies, except that wasps don’t produce wax. Instead, they build nests of wood pulp and saliva. Unlike bees, wasps look for naturally supportive structures when choosing where to build a nest.
Wasp queens mate with males in the Fall. After fertilization, the queen hibernates underground or in a sheltered area such as under floorboards or in a log.
In spring, the queen awakens, finds flower nectar to replenish lost strength, and then constructs a simple nest which will become the foundation for the colony. This foundation includes several egg “cells,” into which the queen deposits her eggs. The queen fertilizes these eggs with the sperm cells obtained during the previous season’s mating.
Wasp eggs hatch into larvae after a few days. During this time, the queen provides food for the larvae for 1 to 3 weeks.
After they’ve grown sufficiently, the larvae spin their own cocoons and transform into pupae. The pupal stage lasts three weeks, at which point the fully-formed adult wasps emerge from their cocoons.
The queen’s first brood always consists solely of sterile female workers. These workers build out the colony’s nest, gather food, and protect the hive, while the queen begins laying eggs full time. A wasp queen may lay up to 25,000 eggs in a lifetime.
Bald-faced hornets also produce wasp nests, typically in bushes, trees, or the roofs of buildings. A bald-faced hornet’s nest will be grey and football shaped.
Bald-faced queens follow the same procedure as other social wasps. They mate with males in the fall and then hibernate in a protected place such as a hollow tree or under rock piles.
In spring, a hornet queen collects cellulose from rotting wood. She chews this cellulose up and adds her saliva to create nest building material.
Once she has constructed the basic foundation for her nest and made brood cells, she deposits and fertilizes eggs. The first brood undergoes the wasp’s developmental cycle and then begins finishing construction of the larger nests.
Bald-faced hornets build their nests in late spring and early summer. A bald-faced hornet colony may consist of between 100 and 400 workers.
The most distinctive feature of a honeybee or bumblebee’s appearance is their fuzz. Bees look furry, with golden-and-black stripes on their abdomen and thorax. They are rounder and fatter than wasps and hornets, and their four wings may look broader. The best way to tell a bee apart from a wasp is to determine whether or not the insect appears fuzzy or shiny.
The primary difference between honeybees and bumblebees is that honeybees produce large quantities of honey to sustain their colonies through the winter, and produce honey so efficiently that they often produce a considerable surplus.
Bumblebees, on the other hand, produce a slightly different kind of honey-substance, and only create enough to sustain themselves and their colony. For this reason, bumblebees aren’t domesticated as honey producers.
Honeybee workers, and bumblebee workers and queens have stingers and can sting humans. Bees only sting defensively. Honeybee stingers have barbs, so that the stinger will become lodged within the skin of the threat the bee attacks. However, honeybees can only use their stinger once, and die upon using it.
Bumblebee stingers don’t have barbs, so they can sting repeatedly. Bumblebee stingers don’t lodge in skin, however.
Wasps tend to be shinier than bees, and have sleeker, more aerodynamic bodies. They may appear more fly-like or conventionally insect-like than a bee.
A wasp’s stinger is located at the bottom of its abdomen, and it will be more prominent or visible than a bee’s. To identify a wasp, look for clearly visible black-and-yellow stripes, a lack of fuzz, a shiny body, a segmented abdomen, and a prominent stinger.
Wasps do not produce honey.
Wasps use their stingers to defend themselves and their territory, and may also use it to hunt prey. Wasp administer a paralyzing venom through their stings to immobilize prey before either feeding on them or planting eggs on them.
Wasps may sting humans repeatedly; wasp venom is painful but not dangerous to humans, unless the person stung suffers from a bee or wasp allergy.
Bald-faced hornets are highly territorial and defend their nests aggressively, so they’re more often found in close proximity to their nests than other wasps.
Like most wasps, worker hornets are capable of stinging repeatedly.
Bald-faced hornets also possess a unique defense: they can eject venom from their ovipositors as a projectile spray. They blind and poison predators by spraying this venom into the predator’s eyes.
Signs of Infestation
If you have a garden, flowers, or houseplants, look for bumble or honeybees congregating around it. Bumblebees make a distinctive buzzing noise when they fly that you may be able to hear.
Bumble and honeybee nests have an unmistakeable honeycomb look, and may dangle vertically in a tree or on the side of a building. Bee nests are golden, pale brown, or cream colored, and may look waxy.
If bumble or honeybees behave aggressively toward you, your family, or your co-workers, and/or if anyone around you has been stung recently, there is probably a nest nearby.
Bumblebees and honeybees only use their stingers for self-defense, so if you’ve been stung, the most likely reason why is that the bee considered you a threat to their nest.
Bumble and honeybee season varies more than wasp or hornet season. Bee activity still corresponds to the bee reproductive and developmental cycle, but when this cycle begins and ends exactly may depend on the blooming activity of flowers in your region.
Generally, bees begin the reproduction and hive-building cycle in early spring and continue through summer.
Bee hives grow in size and population throughout the summer, reaching their most populous (and potentially dangerous) by mid-to-late fall, though you might see bees more during the summer time, when they still have flowers to pollinate.
Wasps will make their presence known around your garbage or your meals. They’re particularly attracted to simple sugars. Unlike bumblebees and honeybees, wasps aren’t afraid of humans. They can be aggressive in defending themselves or their territory.
Wasps will not sting unless provoked, however, so simply seeing a wasp in your home or around you outside should not be cause for panic.
Wasps typically build their nests in out-of-the-way locations or areas that can naturally support the structure. Look under roof gutters, in the upper corners of ceilings, in chimneys and vents, or in nooks and crannys.
Wasps’ nests come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they’re usually roughly oval-shaped and look wooden or textured. They’ll be grey-ish or brown-ish and may look dirty. Wasps may also build their nests out of or into pre-existing bird or pest nests.
Wasp activity corresponds to their reproductive and developmental cycles. Wasps will be the least prevalent in spring, when the queen wasp first awakens and begins to build her nest. From early-to-mid spring, a wasp colony may only support a queen and a single generation of workers.
After the initial worker generation is born, a wasp hive will continue to grow rapidly, as the queen continues to lay and fertilize eggs to create workers and drones.
This process continues until late summer or early fall, and wasp’s nests continue to grow larger and more populous. The ultimate size and population density of a wasp nest is determined by how many eggs hatch before the queen stops laying them.
During fall, wasps stop collecting food suitable for developing their young and instead seek out carbohydrates for themselves. During this period, wasps will seem to grow more active.
Like other wasps, the bald-faced hornet will be attracted to garbage, food, and sugary beverages.
Bald-faced hornets are considerably more territorial than most wasps or bees, and will aggressively defend the area around their nests. Worker hornets can sting multiple times and use their venom spray on people. Occasionally hornets might build nests close enough to homes and businesses that their defensive nature is a problem, though this is uncommon.
Bald-faced hornets build nests in bushes, trees, and the outside of buildings. Their nests will always be at least 3 feet off of the ground.
Like other wasps, the bald-faced hornet builds their nests in places that naturally support them.
Bald-faced hornets’ nests may look slightly different from other wasp and bee nests. They will be football shaped, light grey, and large. Some nests may dangle from tree branches.
Like other wasps, bald-faced hornets become the most prevalent and potentially dangerous in the late summer and early fall.
Treatment and Prevention
The best way to deal with a bee infestation is to move or destroy the nest. This can be dangerous for non-professionals, however, so if you identify a nest on your property, give us a call.
Bees enter structures through gaps in the foundation, doors or windows, or walls. Weather-sealing and caulking these gaps will help keep them out.
Bees tend to be attracted to cluttered or messy yards, especially yards with wild flowers or weeds. Regular lawn maintenance will make your property less attractive to bees looking for places to nest.
Bees often enter structures to enter moisture. Address plumbing leaks, don’t leave standing water in sinks or bathtubs, and look for places where your home produces condensation.
Wasps are attracted to garbage, especially the remains of sugary beverages like soda or fruit juice. Rinse out cans and bottles thoroughly before recycling them.
Store your garbage in sealed plastic bags, and empty the trash cans in your home frequently. If you produce a lot of garbage every week, consider storing it 10 feet or more away from your property, if possible.
Don’t leave food out in the open, especially if it’s sugary or pungent.
Wasps may also be attracted to overripe or rotting yard plants, as they attract the kinds of pests wasps often prey on.
If you have any other pest infestation problems in or around your place of business, they may attract wasps.
Wasps build nests in out-of-the-way, dark locations where they feel safe. Look under your porch, in the corners of your roof or siding, or in your attic.
Bald-faced hornets build their nests at least 3 feet off the ground, so one effective prevention technique would be to deprive them of the high cover or shelter they need to protect themselves. Keep bushes, hedges, and trees well-trimmed and tidy.
Like other wasps, bald-faced hornets are opportunistic predators, which means if you have other pest problems, such as flies, spiders, or fleas, hornets may be attracted to your home for a meal. The things that attract other pests may other attract them.
Rinse out recycling and store garbage in sealed plastic bags.
If you find a hornet’s nest near your property, give us a call at your earliest convenience. Removing a bald-faced hornets nest yourself can be dangerous or painful and isn’t recommended.
Great Pollinator Project.org’s Pictorial Guide to Common Bees in the NY Metro Area
Cornell University New York State Integrated Pest Management page article: “How to Deal with Stinging Insects”
Cornell Cooperative “Home Grown” Fact Sheets: Bald-Faced Hornets and Aerial-Nesting Yellowjackets
Cornell Cooperative: Paper Wasps
Cornell Cooperative: Aerial Nesting Wasps and Bees
Cornell University Insect Diagnostic Laboratory Carpenter Bees Fact Sheet
UK-produced table on telling bees, wasps, and hornets apart (available as PDF)
Mental Floss article: “Bees vs. Hornets vs. Wasps: What’s the Difference?”
The Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation Pamphlet: “Bees, Wasps and Hornets: What You Need to Know” (available as PDF)
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Insect Fact Sheet: Bald-faced hornet
University of Florida Department of Entomology and Nematology Featured Creature article: European honeybee
Bumble Bee Conservation Trust article: “About Bee’s Lifecycle”
Motherearthnews.com’s “Wasp Facts: History, Habitats and Habits”