Hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets – oh my!

How to identify stinging insects and protect the bees

3 minute read

Wasps surround an open faced hive on white wood

It’s late summer, and you’re ready to take advantage of these last several weeks of warm weather. Plus, it’s prime season for backyard barbecues and enjoying the relaxing paradise of your yard.

Unfortunately, it’s also prime wasp season. 

Wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets are notoriously bothersome stinging insects. While they play an essential role in the ecosystem, most of us would prefer that role to be performed in a remote field somewhere away from our yard. But when they do turn up near our homes, how can you identify what type of insect you are looking at?

Bees vs. Wasps

While wasps are commonly confused with bees, they are very different. Bee species, like the bumblebee or honey bee, are fuzzy little vegetarians. Their thorax and abdomen are segmented, but it isn’t immediately obvious unless examined closely. They have very hairy bodies, which is why they are perfect pollinators. While foraging for food, pollen attaches to their hair, and the bees carry it to their next food source. A bee will usually only sting to protect its nests and can only sting once. Since stinging is deadly, bees sting as a last resort.

Wasps, on the other hand, are omnivores. They feed on other insects by paralyzing their prey with the venom from their stings. They have smoother bodies and are more slender than their bee cousins. Unlike bees, they also have an immediately noticeable and very distinguishable waist, even at a distance. Wasps tend to be more aggressive than bees – especially the dreaded yellow jacket. Their stingers do not detach from their bodies when they sting, so these insects can sting more than once! It’s no wonder so many people find them terrifying.

About Bees -- And Why We Want to Protect Them

A combination of climate change, farming practices, and the increased use of pesticides are leading to a decrease in bee populations, which is a cause for concern. Their efficiency as pollinators means they play a vital role – pollinators are essential to producing somewhere around 1/3 of the food we consume! 

The two most commonly seen bees are the bumblebee and the honey bee. Both have a rounder shape and tend to be smaller than wasps.




Appearance: Black and yellow with fuzzy body
Size: 0.4” to 0.7”
Sting Risk: Not usually aggressive, unless nest is threatened
Most Notable Characteristic: Round body shape



Honey Bee


Appearance: Yellow-orange and black bands with fuzzy body
Size: 0.5” to 0.65”
Sting Risk: Not usually aggressive, unless nest is threatened
Most Notable Characteristic: Oval body shape and transparent wings



Wasp Species and How to Identify Them

When referring to a wasp, most people are specifically referring to paper wasps that dangle their legs while flying. However, hornets and yellow jackets are also species of wasps with different appearances and habits.

All species of wasp will sting readily when threatened. They do not lose their stinger like bees, so they can sting multiple times. Their smooth bodies and thin waists are easily distinguished from bee species.




Appearance: Pointed lower abdomen, smooth body
Size: 0.75” to 1”
Sting Risk: Not usually aggressive, but stings readily when threatened.
Most Notable Characteristic: Pinched waist, legs dangle when flying





Appearance: Thinner than bee, but fatter than wasp, smooth body
Size: 1” to 1.5”
Sting Risk: Not usually aggressive, but stings readily if threatened
Most Notable Characteristic: large size and painful sting



Yellow Jacket


Appearance: Black and yellow color, smooth body, thin waist
Size: 3/8” to 5/8”
Sting Risk: Aggressive – will sometimes sting unprovoked
Most Notable Characteristic: Black and yellow pattern



It is easy to label everything with wings and a stinger as a bee without knowing how to identify the differences. But bees are mostly peaceful little creatures who carry pollen around to help supply food and keep nature in balance. You can tell the wasps they aren’t invited to the barbecue. But keep an eye out for the fuzzy bodies so you can cheer on the bees while they keep pollinating.