Bees, wasps, hornets and their families

A large organism order consisting of sawflies, ants, wasps, hornets, and bees is known as the ‘hymenopteran order’ and an estimate of 150000 existing species belongs to this order along with over 2000 extinct ones.  The Hymenoptera order is divided into two groups; the Symphyta (referring to insects that have no waist) and the Apocrita (referring to insects that have a narrow waist). Bees and wasps both fall under the Apocrita group. Within the order, there are several different superfamilies. Bees belong to the Apoidea superfamily with a monophyletic lineage whereas the remaining two; the wasps and the hornets, belong to the Vespoidea superfamily.

Currently, experts have estimated that over 20000 different species of bees, around 75000 of wasps and 20 of hornets are present and more are still being discovered!

Bees are a completely different species. However, hornets are also wasps, but a specific type of them which is why they are often thought of separately and will be discussed separately in this article. 

Dangerous wasp building a nest
Dangerous wasp building a new nest

Their similarities and why they are confused with one another

The word Hymenoptera is derived from a mixture of Greek words; ‘hymen’ referring to the membranes and ‘ptera’ meaning wings. This means that all the species that belong to this order have 2 pairs of wings and that these wings (hind and fore wings) are joined together by hooks. The name Hymenoptera, due to this fact is also a tribute and a reference to the ancient Greek god of marriage named ‘hymeno’ because when in flight, its as if the wings are married. 

Since bees, wasps, and hornets belong to the same order, they have a handful of similarities to one another which is why they are often confused to be the other.  All three of them are winged creatures. The ability to sting when threatened or disturbed is also a common attribute and the fact that only the females have a stinger-also called the ovipositor, Is also the same. The larvae (offspring) of all three insects also look pretty similar. A lot like maggots.  Furthermore, the hierarchy system in each of their colonies is also the same. Each has 3 types of its kind in the colony; a queen-whose only purpose is to lay eggs, the drones(males)-whose the only purpose is to mate with the queen and the workers (females)- whose purpose is to do pretty much everything else, from looking after the offspring to feeding, hunting and protecting.

The difference in physical appearance 

Bees, wasps, and hornets belonging to the same order (Hymenoptera) are quite similar in looks.  All 3 of them come with antennas, membranous translucent wings, 3 pairs of legs and a stinger and since they all come from the same subgroup within Hymenoptera, called the Apocrita, they are all constricted at the waist, meaning they have narrow waists. But that’s as far as it goes when it comes to physical similarities. 

Bees are generally categorized as ‘cute flying insects’.  They are covered in branched body hairs that make then appear fuzzy and soft. Wasps and Hornets on the other hand lack fur and have a bare, naked exoskeleton. The three creatures also vary in size, Bees are much smaller than their Wasp and Hornet cousins, typically half an inch or 1.2 centimeters in length. Wasps are larger at closer to an inch and Hornets are bigger still at one and a half inches and beyond. Some hornets can even reach sizes of up to 2 inches. Generally, the most commonly seen bees are yellow and black. Wasps are also yellow and black, however unlike bees, that have yellow and black body hairs, wasps have hairless bodies with yellow and black rings, hornets similarly also have hairless bodies but with black and white rings. This, however, is a general and the most commonly seen difference, but still, other variations in colors do exist as well. 

Difference in behavior

Bees if unprovoked are gentle creatures. Most of the time they tend to fly away when they are disturbed. However though, if bees feel threatened, they can also sting and sometimes even swarm. But swarming for bees is very rare, it usually occurs (if ever) to protect the nest and only colonist bees do it. Wasps, on the other hand, are known to be much more aggressive. Hornets are also gentler creatures if unprovoked, compared to wasps. Bees use their stingers only when it is of the utmost importance, because after stinging a bee dies and that is due to its stinger being hooked, which causes it to detach from the body and embed it into the skin. Unlike bees, wasps and hornets don’t have hooked stingers and have the ability to repeatedly sting without dying, which makes them be less wary when stinging and more dangerous. This ability comes in handy, as wasps and hornets are carnivores and can be and are used to kill their prey.

Difference in diets

While some bees are attracted to sugars especially liquid sugar like juices and drinks, most bees feed on pollen and nectar from flowers as their main source of food. Nectar is a sweet liquid produced by flowers whereas pollen is a typically yellow powdery substance consisting of pollen grains that are discharged by the male cone (male part of the flower).

Wasps and hornets, however, are different from bees, in fact, they are pretty much the opposite. They can survive on nectar and fruit but they both are carnivorous creatures. they scavenge for other insects, dead animals, leftover and decaying foods.

Difference in nests

There are two types of bees; solitary and social bees. Solitary bees, as the name suggests prefer to live alone while social bees like the honeybee live in large colonies. Where solitary bees decide to reside, varies. Some species prefer to stay in crevices, some in ready-made holes while some make their own nests. Social bees prefer to make their nests in hollow trees. Solitary bees have tiny nests whereas the size of a social bees’ nest depends on its colony. Some colonies are as big as 50 to 60 thousand bees and some as little as 50 bees. Bees that make their own nest make it out of beeswax. They chew the wax until it softens and then use it as glue to bond honeycomb together.

Wasps usually make their nest in a spot that is sheltered but has an easy way outside. These places include barns, shelters, attics, garages, inside hollow trees, etc. the wasp has an intricate nest. They make it by chewing wood pulp and from saliva, which gives the nest a papery wall look that is quite distinctive. The size and numbers of wasps per colony depend on the species. Some wasp colonies can grow up to 15000 wasps per nest while some can be as little as 500 to 100 per nest. 

Hornets prefer to make their nests in tree trunks, however, you can still find them in wall cavities, etc, as long as there is a food source nearby. Like wasps, hornets also make paper-like structures out of the wood pulp and saliva. When a hornet’s nest is at its peak of population, which is generally during the end of summers (around September) the colony can grow up to 700 workers per nest. 

Difference In their  life span
a bees life span depends on what type of species it belongs to and its role in the colony. A typical worker bee has a life expectancy of 6 weeks during summer and up to 5 months in winter. A drone bee is expected to live up to for 8 weeks unless it mates with the queen sooner because they die soon after the mating process. A queen bee, on the other hand though, can live up to three to four years.

Wasp and hornets have more or less the same life span and it is slightly different than that of the lifespan of a bee. A wasp queen can live up to 12 months. Workers bees (females) for about 12-22 days and just like bees, the longevity of the drone’s (male wasp) life depends on when it mates with the queen, as they also die after mating.

Importance to humans

bees are nature’s excellent pollinators and are important for the production of 1/3rd  of the world’s food production. A Bees’ pollinating ability makes them not only important to humans, but to the entire ecosystem. Without bees, the ecosystem will fall. 

Wasps and hornets can be labeled as natures pest control experts. Due to their feeding habits, that consist of eating dead animals and killing insects, they can be extremely helpful in cleaning up messes and keeping your gardens and homes free of flies and other smaller insects. 

How to get rid of their nests

Getting rid of these creatures can be a nuisance and dangerous as they can swarm and sting. So before trying to get rid of them, make sure to follow simple precautionary steps such as carrying out the extermination at night as they are least active then. Remember to wear protective gloves and preferably a helmet. 

Carry out extermination by spraying the nest with soap water or a mixture of vinegar and water. This would kill the bees and you can then detach the nest and throw it away. Smoking the nest is also a way to get rid of them, as it makes them evacuate. You can then again detach and throw away the nest.  Simply detaching the nest by putting a garbage can over it while these insects stay inside is also an option, however, it’s a bit more tricky and can be dangerous. Apart from that, always make sure to get rid of the nest. Even if you kill one colony, if the nest remains, it could attract others. 

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Dusty Showers has been in the urban nuisance wildlife and pest control field since 1993. Taught by Garon Fyffe, a pioneer in humane nuisance wildlife management, Dusty has a passion for finding humane solutions to human & wildlife conflicts. Dusty was the only individual invited by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in the lat 1990's to help write legislation for legal protection of Florida bats. With an instinct for solving wildlife, Dusty found pest control to be an easy "add-on interest". Dusty started his first business "Animal Instincts Wildlife & Pest Management" in the Tampa Bay, Florida area in 1995. Eventually selling Animal Instincts in 2002, Dusty went on to start Creepy Creatures Termite and Pest Control in 2009, which he still owns and operates today in Palm Harbor, Florida.

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