How to Identify Stinging Insects

Honey bees usually are gentle in nature, and it’s rare for someone to be stung by a honey bee. Away from their hives, honey bees are nonaggressive. More aggressive insects are the more likely culprits when someone is stung.

Most folks, however, don’t make the distinction between honey bees and everything else. They incorrectly lump all insects with stingers into the “bee” category. True bees are unique in that their bodies are covered with hair, and they use pollen and nectar from plants as their sole source of food (they’re not the ones raiding your cola drink at a picnic — those are likely to be yellow jackets).

Here are some of the more common stinging insects.

What does a bumblebee look like?

The gentle bumblebee is large, plump, and hairy. It’s a familiar sight, buzzing loudly from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar. Bumblebees live in small ground nests that die off every autumn. At the peak of summer, the colony is only a few hundred strong. Bumblebees make honey, but only small amounts (measured in ounces, not pounds). They are docile and not inclined to sting, unless their nest is disturbed.

The bumblebee is furry and plump.
The bumblebee is furry and plump.

How can I tell if this flying thing is a carpenter bee?

The carpenter bee looks much like a bumblebee, but its habits are quite different. It is a solitary bee that makes its nest by tunneling through solid wood (sometimes the wooden eaves of a barn or shed). Like the honey bee, the carpenter bee forages for pollen. Its nest is small and produces only a few dozen offspring a season. Carpenter bees are gentle and are not likely to sting. But they can do some serious damage to the woodwork on your house.

The carpenter bee looks similar to a bumblebee, but its abdomen has no hair.
The carpenter bee looks similar to a bumblebee, but its abdomen has no hair.

How does a wasp look?

Many different kinds of insects are called “wasps.” The more familiar of these are distinguished by their smooth hard bodies (usually brown or black) and familiar ultra-thin “wasp waist.”

So-called “social wasps” build exposed paper or mud nests, which usually are rather small and contain only a handful of insects and brood. These nests sometimes are located where we’d rather not have them (in a door frame or windowsill). The slightest disturbance can lead to defensive behavior and stings. Social wasps primarily are meat eaters, but adult wasps are attracted to sweets. Note that wasps and hornets have smooth stingers (no barbs) and can inflict their furry over and over again. Ouch!

The wasp is clearly identified by its smooth hairless body and narrow “wasp waist.”
The wasp is clearly identified by its smooth hairless body and narrow “wasp waist.”

Yellow jacket

The yellow jacket also is a social wasp. Fierce and highly aggressive, it is likely responsible for most of the stings wrongly attributed to bees. Yellow jackets are a familiar sight at summer picnics where they scavenge for food and sugary drinks. Two basic kinds of yellow jackets exist: those that build their nests underground (which can create a problem when noisy lawn mowers or thundering feet pass overhead) and those that make their nests in trees. All in all, yellow jackets aren’t very friendly bugs.

The ill-tempered yellow jacket is a meat eater but also has a taste for sweets.
The ill-tempered yellow jacket is a meat eater but also has a taste for sweets.

How can I identify a bald-faced hornet?

Bald-faced hornets are not loveable creatures. They are related to yellow jackets, but they build their nests above ground. Hornets have a mean disposition and are ruthless hunters and meat eaters. They do, however, build fantastically impressive and beautiful paper nests from their saliva and wood fiber they harvest from dead trees. These nests can grow large during the summer and eventually reach the size of a basketball.

Hornet nests can contain several thousand hot-tempered hornets — keep your distance! In nontropical regions, the end of the summer marks the end of the hornet city. When the cool weather approaches, the nest is abandoned, and only the queen survives. She finds a warm retreat underground and emerges in the spring, raising young and building a new nest.

The bald-faced hornet makes impressive paper nests in trees.
The bald-faced hornet makes impressive paper nests in trees.
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