Because both can give a painful sting, bees and wasps are often confused for each other. While they may look similar and are related, they are two distinctly different types of insect. Each has specific characteristics that sets it apart. With a little knowledge and some careful observation, you can learn to tell the difference between a bee and a wasp.
Observe the body shape of the insect. In bees, look for a fuller, broader and more compact body, while in wasps you will notice a more slender and long body with a narrow waist.
Examine the surface features. Bees tend to be furry, while wasps are smooth. Wasps are often more colourful with alternating red or black and yellow stripes on their bodies, while bees tend to be more muted colours of black or brown.
Look at the stinger. If you are examining a dead bee or wasp, carefully look at the stinger using a magnifying glass or microscope. Bees possess a stinger that has large barbs, allowing the bee to sting only once. Wasps have a smoother stinger with little barbs. This can allow the wasp to sting repeatedly.
Observe the insect's home. Wasps generally build open nests that are made of paper. Certain solitary species of wasps will also burrow in the ground or build nests made of mud. Solitary bees tend to build nests in wood and in spaces in rocks, while others, such as the honeybee, live in colonies in hollow trees and other enclosed spaces including man made bee hives.
Watch the insect's feeding habits. Bees usually feed on nectar and pollen, moving from flower to flower. Wasps are predatory, feeding on other insects, or are scavengers, often searching for protein at picnic sites and dustbins.
Bees and wasps can deliver a painful sting and can be aggressive. Observe carefully. In certain areas of the southern U.S., Africanised bees pose a real threat to the public. If you find a wild bee hive, do not approach it. Contact your local authorities immediately.