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How to Identify Wasps & Stinging Insects

Updated July 12, 2018

Some of the insects most feared by human beings are those that sting -- from bees to ants. When an insect sting provokes an allergic reaction in a person, the situation can be serious, but otherwise these "attacks" are simply temporarily painful and exact no lasting damage. It is important to remember, as well, that all of these insects sting people as a defensive measure; rarely do they attack without provocation. In addition to defence, the stinging chemicals delivered by an insect's ovipositor -- the so-called "stinger," which is also used to lay eggs in many other kinds of insects -- can be used to incapacitate prey. Stinging insects are some of the most obviously beneficial insects from a human perspective: Many kinds of bees are important pollinators, and stinging wasps often target agricultural pests.

Distinguish most bees by the hairiness of parts of their bodies and their rotundity. Many, including the familiar honeybees and bumblebees as well as digger and cuckoo bees, are vividly marked with black and yellow banding or splotches. The rear legs of most bees show enlarged, flattened segments toward their base. Stingers are often not especially prominent.

Identify stinging ants by their kinked antennae, large heads and narrow bodies. Though we most commonly envision ants as wingless, entirely terrestrial creatures, queen ants and males often possess wings during certain times of year. Some of the most notorious stinging insects are ants, including fire ants and the South American bullet ant, said to deliver one of the most painful stings of any creature.

Identify wasp species by their large wings, bold colouration and often prominent ovipositors. Wasps come in many shapes and sizes, from the highly slender mud daubers to honeybee-like yellow jackets to heavy-bodied hornets. One of the most painful stings in the world is delivered by a species of tarantula hawk wasp of the American Southwest, an insect named for its habit of paralysing tarantulas and laying eggs inside for the larvae to feast upon.

Tip

Use an illustrated field guide or, for more in-depth investigation, a taxonomic key to identify stinging insects. Keying into basic physical features can often allow you to classify the animal -- say, as a wasp versus a bee -- but the staggering diversity of these invertebrates usually requires close and careful scrutiny if you hope to categorise on the level of species. Only a few stinging insects, like bumblebees, are immediately obvious to the layperson.

Warning

Avoid close scrutiny of stinging insects if you have a history of allergic reactions.

Things You'll Need

  • Field guide or taxonomic key
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About the Author

Ethan Shaw is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written extensively on outdoor recreation, ecology and earth science for outlets such as Backpacker Magazine, the Bureau of Land Management and Atlas Obscura. Shaw holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.