The Difference Between Bees, Wasps and Hornets

What’s the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? You may be surprised to learn that some are masquerading as imposters. Take yellow jackets for instance, whose yellow and black stripes speak bee when in fact they are wasps. In the natural world, though, all three serve a purpose. So before you reach for the chemical spray, please see below.

Recently I was asked to represent my garden club at a function in Maryland. Our speaker was Kerry Wixted, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Her talk, entitled Bees, Bats and Snakes: Oh My! was as amusing as it was informative. I’ll save the bats and snakes for later. What follows are some highlights of her lecture.


Aside from stinging ability, there are some key differences between bees, wasps and hornets. Most notably, bees feed on pollen and nectar while wasps and hornets feed mainly on insects (although many also pollinate.) Only bees produce honey.

Let’s start with bees.


Bees are highly valued for their pollination abilities. Without them, much of our agriculture would disappear.

A honeybee – dense fur helps it collect more pollen

Perhaps the best known of all bees, honeybees are typically golden and furry (the better to catch pollen with). They also come equipped with pollen baskets attached to their hind legs. Honeybees die when they sting. Bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps and hornets do not.

In fact, if a honeybee decides to sting you, it’s a conscious choice to sacrifice his or her own life for the hive. Once the barbed stinger is embedded in your skin, it is wrenched from the bee’s body, and the bee dies.

Honeybees prefer to nest in colonies above ground in tree cavities, rock crevices and boxes designed expressly for them. They make their hives by chewing wax until it becomes soft. Then they form it into a honeycomb.

Honeybees in honeycomb

A subspecies of honeybees, bumblebees like to nest both above and below ground. Their large size and fuzzy bodies make them easy to distinguish. 

Of the over 400 different varieties of bees in Maryland, many prefer to nest in the ground or in wood or crevices. These kind of bees are known as solitary bees, preferring to nest as a family unit; just one female and her offspring, Occasionally, solitary bees will nest close to one another, however, giving the impression of a colony.

Solitary bee inspecting a potential nesting site

The more common solitary bee species in Maryland are mason, squash and sweat bees. These bees are rarely aggressive. And each has its own special relationship with certain types of vegetables and flowers.


It may surprise you to know that like bees, wasps are important pollinators. However, they are less efficient, due to having less hair on their bodies. So instead, they prefer to feed mainly on insects, which they use to provide proteins to the larvae in their colony. They do not produce honey. As I mentioned above, yellow jackets are wasps.

Yellow-jacket wasp

Here’s the benefit. In the early summer months, wasps act as a natural pest control, feeding on caterpillars and other insects in the garden. The problem arises later in the summer, though, when the food supply becomes scarce. That’s when they switch to buzzing around garbage cans and picnic lunches. There are currently over 1200 wasp species in Maryland, the most common of which are yellow-jackets and paper wasps.

Swarm of bees

Wasps nest both above and below ground, while yellow-jackets nest in the ground only. For example, some build their nests in old rodent holes, widening them as they develop their hives. Recently, we discovered a hole full of yellow jackets in our Demonstration Garden that sent two team members to the hospital. It’s important to know the difference. 

True to their name, paper wasps make their nests out of a substance similar to paper. They chew wood into a pulp and then stick it together with their saliva to form a honeycomb. These are referred to as paper hives.

Wasp nest


A subspecies of wasps, hornets are the largest in the family. They tend to be more black/brownish and white with little bright color. They can be distinguished from other wasps by their wider heads and rounder abdomens. 

European hornet – notice the lack of visible fur on the body

The only true species of hornet in the United States is the European hornet, also known as the bald-faced hornet. The young eat caterpillars and the adults pollinate flowers. In Maryland, the European hornet is highly prized for its preference for eating cicadas. 

Here’s a key to the bees and wasps pictured in the cover photo:

For more information on how to build nests for native bees, click here for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. Or, to learn more about bees and what they pollinate, click here for my post How To Make Sense of the Buzz In Your Garden.


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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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