Yellow Jackets Vs. Honey Bees – Comparison Guide

A yellow jacket and honey bee isolated on a white background

The yellow jacket and honey bee are striped flying insects found in gardens worldwide. Although sometimes mixed up, they differ in appearance, aggression, nesting habit, and more. Let’s take a close look at how they compare.

What is the difference between a yellow jacket and a honey bee?

A yellow jacket is a wasp that has bright yellow and black stripes. It is an aggressive insect that can sting repeatedly. Honey bees are fuzzy and also striped, but their bands aren’t as bright yellow. Their diet consists of nectar and pollen, and they are typically much less aggressive towards intruders.    

Appearance

The yellow jacket is a black wasp with bright yellow markings on its head and legs with bands of yellow on its abdomen. Its coloring is bolder than a honey bee, with a smoother, shinier body. Another giveaway sign of a yellow jacket is its pinched waist, where the thorax meets the abdomen.

Top down, closeup of a yellow jacket on white background

Honey bees vary in color depending on their breed. They are typically hairier, covered with fuzz over the head, legs, and thorax. Honey bees have a fatter body than a yellow jacket with a duller set of yellow and brown stripes.      

Unlike wasps, the honey bee has pockets on its legs for carrying pollen. Find out more about the bee anatomy here.

Top down, closeup of honey bee on white background

Colony

The yellow jacket and honey bee are social insects with similar roles in the colony. The females are the workers who take care of foraging and building, while the drones are available for mating, and the queen stays busy laying eggs.

A honey bee colony can grow to a population of 60,000 bees, while yellow jackets won’t usually exceed 5,000. Honey bees prepare for winter by building up stores of honey and pollen; their goal is to survive the cold weather by huddling together in a cluster and staying within the warmth of the hive.

The yellow jacket hive doesn’t store food resources, instead choosing to hibernate through winter. Only the queen will make it through to spring when she begins a new colony by laying eggs in a new nest.

Nest

Yellow jacket queens build the nest without the help of workers. Often found in underground burrows, they’re happy to build a nest in wall cavities, roof spaces, or any safe enclosed area. She chews bits of wood fiber mixed with her saliva to create a grey papery substance for the nest’s walls. Next spring, the queen searches for a safe spot to start a new colony.

The papery nest of a yellow jacket colony attached to a house

Honey bees use beeswax to build their hive. Many worker bees get involved with the building process while the queen oversees the work. One colony of bees may live in the same home for years, so long as foraging material remains nearby and conditions are right.

As a honey bee hive starts to become overcrowded, there is a good possibility they will swarm. Led by scouts, roughly half the bees, including the current queen, will leave to start a new home. Yellow jackets don’t swarm.  

Diet

Yellow jackets are omnivorous, feeding on meat from insects like bees and flies and nectar from flowers. They are opportunists and will also hover around picnics and rubbish, looking for sweet drinks, fruit, and whatever else is available. Yellow jackets feed their babies meat, with a preference for other insects.

Honey bees are herbivores that primarily live on a diet of pollen and nectar from flowers. They also eat honey stores when foraging isn’t possible. Young developing honey bees are initially fed royal jelly before moving onto a honey diet.  

A honey bee collecting pollen and nectar from a bright-colored flower.

Benefits

Honey bees play an essential role in pollinating food crops and other plants around the world. Sizeable commercial food producers and small backyard gardens both need bees to thrive. As honey bees are domesticated, they can be transported in large numbers to different locations to help pollinate local crops. Honey bee colonies also provide resources like honey, propolis, beeswax, and royal jelly.

Yellow jackets are also helpful for pollinating plants as they enjoy feeding on nectar. However, their pollination efforts pale in comparison to the honey bee.

While yellow jackets don’t provide valuable resources for humans, they help keep pests in the garden in check. Insects like caterpillars and flies would increase without these fiery yellow wasps to keep their numbers down. 

Character traits

Honey bees and yellow jackets both have a stinger and will defend their hive if needed. However, yellow jackets are typically more aggressive and will sting unprovoked. Their smooth stinger means they can repeatedly attack without dying. Honey bees have a barbed stinger, so they die after using it. 

Honey bees are mostly docile insects that go about their day foraging. They mostly display aggression when their hive is threatened. Yellow jackets will attack anywhere and are known to sting simply because they want some picnic snacks.

  • The yellow jacket and honey bee both have venom in their sting.
  • Yellow jackets will bite your flesh to get a good grip before stinging more than once.
  • Honey bees only use their stinger before disemboweling, trying to remove it.

The characteristics of a honey bee will vary depending on its breed. For example, Africanized bees are highly aggressive towards any threat, while Buckfast bees are often gentle. Other factors like weather and foraging conditions will also impact a honey bee’s mood, so never assume a nest of bees is friendly.

Removal

It’s often temporary if you spot a big clump of honey bees clinging to a branch or wall. They will usually move on within the day. If they’re out of the way, it’s best to leave them as they are resting in a non-aggressive state. If you want them removed, contact a local beekeeper who can remove them and take the bees to a new home.

Yellow jackets should be treated with extreme caution as they are highly aggressive. Call a pest control company to have the hive removed.

Closeup of a yellow jacket nest in a small cavity

Did you know? Yellow jackets and bees are both in the Hymenoptera order.

Commonly asked questions

Am I looking at a bee or a yellow jacket?

The easiest way to differentiate the two is to look at their color. A yellow jacket has vibrant yellow bands, while honey bees are closer to amber or brown.

Do yellow jackets make honey?

Yellow jackets do not produce honey; they hunt other insects and search for nectar and other opportunistic food scraps. As wasps hibernate, they do not need honey stores to get them through winter like bees. 

Summing up

Yellow jackets and honey bees are sometimes mixed up. They’re a similar size at roughly half an inch in length, and both have a stripy body. If you notice a tiny, pinched waist, it’s a wasp, as bees have a fat abdomen and torso. The other giveaway that it’s a yellow jacket is if it’s bright yellow and hairless.

If you’ve got a nest, it’s usually easy to tell the two apart. Wasps build papery homes while honey bees use wax. Whatever your new visitors are, contact a professional if you want them removed. Please don’t call an exterminator if they’re bees. Their numbers are constantly declining, and a beekeeper can move them to a new home with minimal fuss.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our comparison of bumblebees and honey bees here.

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