Bee vs. Wasp vs. Hornet: What’s the Difference?

The difference between these small winged insects is subtle, but bees, wasps, and hornets all play important roles in the environment.
The difference between bees, wasps, and hornets is subtle.
The difference between bees, wasps, and hornets is subtle. / TorriPhoto/Moment/Getty Images (wasps), Robert Pickett/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images (bee), Adelheid Nothegger/ImageBROKER/Getty Images (hornet), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (frame)

As winged insects go about the important business of pollinating plants, you may wonder whether the little guy that just landed on your arm is a bee, a wasp, a hornet, or even a yellow jacket—and whether it’s about to sting you. One quick way to identify bees vs. wasps vs. hornets: A bee can generally only sting you once, while hornets and wasps can sting multiple times.





Clade Anthophila

Pollen, nectar


Suborder Apocrita

Spiders, flies, caterpillars, nectar


Genus Vespa

Fruit, flies, sap, spilled soda

Here are some less-painful methods for telling the difference between bees, wasps, and hornets.

What Do Bees Look Like?

Like all insects, including wasps and hornets, bees’ bodies have a head, thorax with six legs, and abdomen. Bees in particular have antennae, compound eyes, and mouth parts that allow them to bite and chew, and many species sport stiff hairs that pick up and transport pollen. Only female bees have stingers, which are actually modified egg-laying structures called ovipositors [PDF].

Bees are classified into seven taxonomic families in the clade Anthophila, numbering roughly 20,000 wild bee species across the globe. They evolved from wasps about 125 million years ago at the same time as flowering plants. Bees are vegetarian and eat flower nectar and pollen.

What Do Wasps Eat?

All wasps belong to the suborder Apocrita, and the most familiar wasps like hornets and yellow jackets are classified in the family Vespidae. They are carnivorous; wasp parents spend a lot of their energy collecting protein-rich spiders and insects to feed their young. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs in the body of another animal, which provides a ready source of protein for the larvae after they hatch. Adult wasps may also eat nectar.

Wasps generally have two pairs of wings and a narrow “waist” between their thorax and abdomen. Only the females have stingers, but they can sting people repeatedly.

Are Hornets Dangerous?

Hornets, a subset of wasps belonging to the genus Vespa, are social insects that nest in colonies. North America has no native hornet species. (Yellowjackets, which are native to North America, belong to the genus Vespula and are not true hornets‚ even though they look and act like them.) Many hornets have been introduced to the continent, such as the European hornet, brought to the East Coast in 1840. The Asian giant hornet was recently discovered nesting in the Pacific Northwest.

Hornets are generally bigger and chunkier than other wasps, and, like their relatives in the suborder Aprocrita, can be aggressive and sting a target multiple times.

A version of this story was published in 2008; it has been updated for 2024.

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