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What's The Difference: Is That A Bee Or A Wasp?

Is that a bee buzzing around your yard, moving from flower to flower? It very well could be, but it could also be a wasp.

Is this a bee or a wasp? Learn the difference between these stinging insects. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Bees and wasps are interesting to watch at a distance. But when they get too close to us, we mostly focus on not getting stung. We probably don’t give much thought to if it is a bee or a wasp buzzing around us.

Bees and wasps are stinging insects, and there are thousands of species of them around the world. They are very beneficial to the ecosystem and the environment.

Bees are the world's primary pollinators, and we depend on them for our food supply. Wasps also pollinate plants. However, wasps are important for another reason too. They are predators, and they eat other insects. This helps control insect populations.

Many people use the term "bee" to refer to all these stinging insects. When trying to understand the differences between them, it's helpful to know there are three kinds of bees: honeybees, bumblebees and carpenter bees.

Hornets are another kind of stinging insect. Hornets are actually specific types of wasps, and they are closely related to yellow jackets. Yellow jackets are also wasps, but they often confused with honeybees because they look similar.

The bald-faced hornet is one of the most common types of hornets, and they look like a larger version of a yellow jacket. Some of the most common kinds of wasps in Illinois include paper wasps and mud daubers. 

Bees and wasps are closely related, but they do have some important differences. Physically you can tell the difference between bees and wasps based on their waistlines. Most wasps have a narrow waist, called a petiole, between their abdomens and thoraxes. Bees do not have this narrowing of the waist. They are about the same width for the entire length of their bodies.

Another difference between bees and wasps is hair, or lack thereof. While many bees are covered in fuzzy hairs, most wasps do not have these hairs.

Bees and wasps include solitary and social species. Solitary bees and wasps, like mud dauber wasps and carpenter bees, live alone. Social insects, including yellow jackets and honeybees, live together in colonies and hives.

Both bees and wasps sting, but only females have stingers. That's because the stingers are actually the organs they use to lay eggs. Bees can sting just once because the stinger comes off when they use it. Wasps can sting multiple times.

Yellow jackets are the most aggressive of the stinging insects we have in Illinois. More people are stung by them than any other type of wasp or bee. In general, social bees and wasps are more likely to sting because they defend their colonies and they have more insects to defend them. Solitary bees and wasps defend their nests alone, making them easier to avoid.

No matter the buzzing insect, if it stings you, some basic first aid is necessary. First, make sure someone stays with the person who was stung in case they have an allergic reaction. 

Wash the sting with soap and water, then remove the stinger (if applicable) by scraping it with a fingernail. A credit card or similar object also works well. Never squeeze the stinger to get it out, and don't use tweezers. Don't scratch the sting, or it can cause an increase in swelling or lead to an infection. If the stung area is swollen, apply ice to help reduce it.

For most people, insect stings are nothing more than an annoyance. However, about 1 percent of the population is allergic to bees. For these people, stings can be life-threatening.

Symptoms of a severe reaction to an insect sting include itching and hives; swelling of the tongue and/or throat; difficulty breathing; dizziness; and stomach cramps, nausea or diarrhea. In the most severe cases, a person's blood pressure can drop quickly, causing shock and loss of consciousness. People with known allergies to stinging insects should carry an epinephrine auto-injector with them.


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