The Difference Between Yellow Jackets, Bees, Hornets, and Wasps

As spring begins and Atlantans start to slowly move outdoors, we may wonder about some of the classic outdoor summer pests. Perhaps the most common and most feared pests are bees. However, most of what people call bees are probably not bees at all. Knowing the difference between yellow jackets, bees, hornets, and wasps can help you figure out what to do about your particular pest.

The Difference Between Yellow Jackets, Bees, Hornets, and Wasps [infographic]

What Pest is Bugging You?

It’s a common occurrence in the spring and summer months. You’re sitting down to enjoy your outdoors meal, when you are suddenly confronted with a black and yellow flying pest. It may be buzzing around your food, circling your drink, or even flying right past your head. Your first thought is that you are being attacked by a bee. But chances are, the bug you are dealing with is not a bee at all.

It is important to know what pest you are dealing with, because different pests have different behaviors. Identifying your pest will help you avoid being bit or stung. It will also help you determine if and how you should deal with its nest. There is a lot of misinformation about the various types of flying, stinging pests that hang around humans. We owe it to ourselves and the bugs around us to know when to call pest control and when to just stay away.

Bees are a completely different family than wasps. There are 20,000 species of bees spread across every continent except Antarctica. Here in Georgia you are most likely to run across honey bees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees, though a number of other species are also present.

Wasps are another family of insects. Yellow jackets are a type of wasp. What most people call hornets are usually bald-faced hornets, which are actually a type of wasp. Both yellow jackets and hornets are more aggressive than bees. They tend to attack in groups and will follow their victims long distances away from their nests.

Identifying a Bee

The two most common types of bees in the U.S. are honey bees and bumblebees. Carpenter bees are also common in the eastern half of the United States. The easiest way to tell a bee from a wasp is by its body shape. Bees have very little thinning between the abdomen and thorax. This gives them the appearance of a single bulbous body, with no distinct “waist”. Carpenter bees and bumblebees are relatively large compared to most wasps. The main difference is that bumblebees are covered in hair, whereas carpenter bees have a smooth, shiny black abdomen.

Honey bees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees are all relatively docile. They will not sting unless they are attacked or injured. Honey bees have barbed stingers that are detached when the bee stings, killing the bee. For this reason, honey bees are reluctant to sting unless the nest is attacked. Carpenter bees don’t tend to travel far from their nests. The males don’t sting and the females only sting when strongly provoked. Bumblebees are also reluctant to sting unless attacked. However, unlike honeybees their stinger is not barbed, so it does not come off and can be used to sting multiple times.


If you are enjoying a meal outdoors and find yourself competing for your food with a black and yellow winged opponent, chances are you have found a wasp. Bees common in the Southeast generally stick to a diet of nectar and pollen, so they have little interest in human food. Wasps, on the other hand, are omnivorous, sharing similar culinary tastes with humans.

Earlier in the season wasps are mostly interested in proteins. Natural prey include other small insects, such as caterpillars, flies, and small spiders. For this reason, they are often considered a beneficial species. However, they can also feed on fish and meat that humans have put out, making them a common nuisance at picnics and barbecues.

Later in the season, wasps mostly seek out sugars. These sugars are naturally available in nectar and sweet fruit and plant juices. However, humans are often an easy source of sugar. Wasps in the late summer are often attracted to sugary drinks, snacks, and garbage cans with sugar coated trash.

Wasps are more aggressive than the bees you will run into in Georgia. They attack in groups to defend their nests. Wasps will also chase intruders hundreds of yards from their nest, sometimes up to a quarter of a mile. They also sting multiple times. This makes wasps more dangerous than bees, both flying around your food and during extermination.

Trying to treat a wasp nest on your own is almost sure to result in stings. Wasps are keen defenders of their nests, so any disturbance of the nest will result in a swarm of wasps out to defend their home. For this reason, it is usually best to leave wasp nest treatment or removal to professionals.

One easy way to tell a wasp from a bee is by its shape. Wasps have a thin “waist” between the abdomen and thorax, making it look like the wasp is made up of three parts, a head and two distinct halves of the body. Wasps tend to look long and thin compared to more bulbous bees.

Yellow Jackets

Yellow Jackets live in nests in the ground. If you see a bunch of buzzing black and yellow insects flying in and out of an area near the ground, chances are you are witnessing a yellow jacket nest. Usually, yellow jackets are a beneficial species, feeding on insects that can be a nuisance or even damage crops. However, if a nest is located near an area regularly trafficked by people, conflict can arise.

Wasps are sensitive to vibrations around their nest. For example, the vibrations caused by a lawn mower, even if it is not directly over the nest, can cause yellow jackets to swarm in defense. Running in the area can do the same thing. Once alerted, yellow jackets are aggressive in defense of the nest. They can follow an intruder hundreds of yards, swarming and stinging multiple times. This makes them a potential danger. If you notice a yellow jacket nest in your backyard or an area you like to spend time, don’t try to treat it yourself. Disturbing a yellow jacket nest can be very risky. Instead, call a professional like the experts at People’s Pest Control. They have the tools and knowledge to safely treat a yellow jacket nest.


The most common type of hornet in the Southeast is the bald-faced hornet. Despite its name, it is actually a type of wasp. This type of hornet is not black and yellow. Instead, it is black and white, though it does have stripes similar to a yellow jacket.

The main difference between yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets is their nesting behavior. Yellow jackets live in nests dug out underground. But hornets make large papery nests high above ground. The nests consist of hexagonal combs covered in a grey papery envelope. In nature, nests are usually placed high in trees or in hollowed out areas. Around humans, nests are often built in sheltered areas under the eaves of a building, under the roof of an outdoor pavilion, beneath a deck, or in similar man made protected areas.

Like other wasps, bald-faced hornets are relatively aggressive. They will defend their nest by attacking in a swarm and chasing intruders for long distances. Bald-faced hornets also have the unique ability to spray their venom into a victim’s eyes from a distance. This can cause watering and temporary blindness.

If you discover a hornet nest, the best thing to do is to leave it alone and call a professional. The specialists at People’s Pest Control can safely remove a nest so that humans are not in danger. Attempting to move or destroy the nest yourself can be very dangerous, as hornets aggressively defend their homes.

Treating Bees and Wasps

Bees generally don’t need to be treated or exterminated unless they are becoming a real nuisance. Carpenter bees are an exception, as they may damage wooden structures. However, wasp nests in areas of human activity can pose a threat of real injury. For this reason, it is best to stay away from a nest if you find one. Contact People’s Pest Control and we will come safely remove the nest so that you can rest easy and enjoy your outdoor meals again.

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