Don’t “Bee” Afraid: A Guide to Distinguishing Among Bees, Yellow Jackets, and Other Stinging Insects

Bumblebees on a flower.

Part I: Identifying Bees

Is that stinging critter a bee, yellow jacket, wasp, or hornet? It’s natural to feel worried when you see stinging insects buzzing around your backyard or barbecue in the park, but many of them are relatively harmless—and are important pollinators. In Part I, we’ll help you learn to identify bees, which is the first step to protecting these critical critters.

The Bee Family

Bees have been in the news a lot lately, as there has been a noticeable decline in their population due to pesticides, habitat encroachment, and climate change—with one North American species, the rusty patched bumble bee, even being added to the endangered species list. Besides being plain old sad, the decline in bee populations is a major problem since we depend on them to pollinate our crops, flowers, and trees, providing us with the fruits and vegetables we need to live. For this reason, it’s important not to kill bees—and that starts with proper identification.

You might be surprised to learn that there are an estimated 25,000 species of bees worldwide, with about 4,000 found in North America alone. While many of us associate bees with hives, most bees actually live in solitary nests, with only a tiny percentage living together and building hives. Bees should be considered welcome guests in the garden, as they pollinate flowers and crops and are mostly nonaggressive. In fact, most bees are stingless, with only honeybees and bumble bees having the ability to sting. In this blog post, we’ll first help you learn to identify these two very important pollinators.

Bumble bees 

Bumble bees are the inspiration for the drawings of cute, cartoon bees that we see everywhere, and are arguably the easiest bee to identify. Large and furry, these bees are mostly black in coloring, with a few bands of yellow, white, or even orange. They live in nests in the ground and pollinate by carrying “baskets” on their hind legs which contain pollen. There are about 50 bumble bee species in the United States (including the rusty patched type mentioned earlier), and they’re responsible for pollinating close to a third of all crops in the United States, including blueberries and tomatoes.

Bumble bees are nonaggressive and rarely sting people; when they do, it’s usually because someone has stepped on, or disturbed, their nest. Contrary to popular belief, they do not die after stinging. Bumble bees are a welcome addition to any yard or garden!

Honeybees

Despite being non-native—they were introduced by European settlers—honeybees have become critical pollinators around North America and are found both domestically and in the wild. Besides producing the honey that gives them their name, they are also responsible for nearly another third of all food eaten in the United States, including cucumbers, almonds, avocados, apricots, cherries, pears, and apples. Similar to bumble bees, honeybees have also experienced a drastic population reduction over the past decade; in fact, some areas have seen a 90 percent reduction in colonies!

Honeybees, like bumble bees, are also fuzzy. Smaller than bumble bees, they are more subdued in color, often appearing tan and black rather than yellow and black. While beekeepers raise honeybees in wooden boxes, in the wild the bees like to build their waxy hives in hollow trees or along the edges of branches or other outcroppings. Honey bees do sting but prefer not to, as they lose their stinger and die directly afterwards. They will rarely sting you unless they feel that they, or their hive, is threatened.

Tip from the Field

If you see thousands of honeybees in the sky or massing on a tree branch, do not be afraid. This is called “swarming” and it happens when a colony becomes too large for a hive, causing a new queen bee to leave with half of the colony in search of a new home. The bees are very docile, as they have no home to defend. Contact a local beekeeper, as they might be in need of a new hive.


Bee populations are dwindling worldwide, and they’re counting on us to come to their rescue. Consider sharing this post to educate others about the differences between bees and wasps, or making your backyard pollinator-friendly. And check back next week for Part II of our guide, which will teach you how to identify yellow jackets, hornets, and paper wasps.