wasps

Honey bee and wasp nests: how to know the difference

Bee nests and wasp nests look very similar, but there are reliable ways to tell them apart.

Before you destroy an insect nest, it’s best to know who’s living inside. The nest size, structure, and location may tell you who built it.

Inside: How can you tell a honey bee nest from a wasp nest? Below are some clues to help you decide.

Let’s face it. With some exceptions, we don’t normally notice the nests of solitary bees and wasps. Because solitary insects live alone and keep to themselves, we seldom note their presence, let alone their nests.

But social creatures like honey bees, bumble bees, yellowjackets, and hornets live large. In fact, we can’t help but notice their immense colonies and intimidating homes. Yikes! So many stingers in one tiny place.

Sometimes we discover a nest and need to know whether it belongs to honey bees or wasps. With training, most people can quickly learn to tell them apart. So let’s look at their similarities and differences.

Large social colonies need big nests

Because social bees and wasps raise big families, they build nests with many tiny compartments, each one suitable for a baby. Imagine a maternity ward with rows and rows of bassinets, and you get the idea. Most people recognize the nests of honey bees because each beeswax cell (bassinet) has a characteristic six-sided shape.

However, some wasps build combs that look suspiciously like the combs of honey bees. These may hang from tree branches or the eaves of your home. Some wasp species may even cement them directly to the wall of a building.

People frequently confuse these nests because they look remarkably similar, with their masses of interconnected cells. Most often, when people see a wasp nest, they immediately believe it contains bees instead of the other way around. That’s not a surprise. Because we equate the word “bee” with “stinging insect,” bees get blamed for many things wasps do.

So how can we tell the difference between similar nests?

This wasp nest hangs from a stalk, something honey bee nests do not do.
This nest of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) hangs from a stalk, something honey bee nests never do.

Is it a bee nest or a wasp nest?

To distinguish a wasp nest from a bee nest, we can look at the nest covering, location, size, composition, and time of year—not to mention the occupants. Let’s look at each.

Nest coverings of bees and wasps are different

In cold and temperate climates, honey bees seldom build combs out in the open. So-called open-air colonies happen, but they are rare. Most commonly, a honey bee colony builds its home in an enclosure such as a wooden hive, a tree hollow, a meter box, or an attic. A covered space offers protection against the weather and predators.

Some wasps cover their nests, too, but the covering is homemade. That is, they build it themselves rather than find it. For example, some wasps build big gray balloons that hang from trees and look like pinatas. To make them, the worker wasps collect and chew wood fibers while adding saliva-like secretions. Then they mold the paste into the shape they want, letting it dry and harden in place.

The cartoon “bee hives” that hang from branches attended by smiling, friendly “honey bees” were most likely modeled after wasp nests. No honey bee builds anything like that.

Inside the balloon, the workers build a series of combs for brood rearing, one beneath the other. Oddly, these combs do not hang vertically like honey bee combs. Instead, they’re stacked like pancakes with “wasp space” between each one.

A wasp nest appears very similar to a honey bee nest.
A wasp nest appears very similar to a honey bee nest.

Some nests have no coverings

Honey bees that build open-air combs do not erect a covering over them, which is the primary reason these colonies seldom survive the winter. Similarly, many solitary wasps build uncovered nests, some glued to a surface and some hanging from “stalks” like an inverted mushroom.

But unlike honey bee nests, these solitary wasp nests do not need to survive the winter. Come fall, the nests get abandoned forever. Anytime you see a single uncovered comb that hangs from a central stalk, you can be confident it belongs to a solitary wasp. A solitary mom has all she can handle without building nursery covers. She compensates by choosing spots that are already protected from the weather, like the eaves of your porch.

Composition: combs of wax vs combs of fiber

As mentioned above, honey bees lay eggs in cells made of beeswax. This wax exudes from eight glands under the bee’s abdomen and gets molded into the proper shape by the worker bees.

However, wasps don’t produce wax. Instead, they build the cells for brood with the same material as the nest covering—wood and plant fibers chewed into a paste. So if the comb you find feels papery instead of waxy, you’ve stumbled on the work of a wasp.

In the cover image at the top of the page, you can see individual wood fibers in the cells. Look carefully at the cell just below the wasp’s right foreleg.

The striped pattern results from different types of wood fibers the wasps used for construction.
The striped pattern of this nest covering results from different types of wood fibers the wasps used for construction. Rusty Burlew

Consider the nest’s location

Location is less telling than some of the other nest characteristics. Usually, honey bees will choose an interior space such as a purpose-built beehive, an attic, a meter box, or even the interior of a support column. I have also found them in beer coolers, playhouses, and under decks. Honey bees are picky and will spend considerable effort to find the “right” space.

Wasp colonies often choose a lofty tree limb, but they also like eaves, overhangs, barns, garages, and sheds. One year, I found a large aerial yellowjacket nest inside a flowerpot-shaped swarm trap—proof that bees and wasps have similar taste in housing.

Although their nests are very different in structure, many people report finding bumble bee nests in smaller snug spaces like mailboxes, discarded mattresses, mole holes, and compost bins. If you find a nest in one of these smaller places, bumble bees are a definite possibility.

Wasp nests that were built inside honey bee swarm traps.  Rusty Burlew
Wasp nests built inside honey bee swarm traps. Both nests belong to aerial yellowjackets, Dolichovespula arenaria. Rusty Burlew

Nest size depends on the season

The population in a colony depends on the time of year. As we progress from spring to fall, wasp nests become more prevalent. They also become bigger. In fact, in North America, wasp populations are tiny in spring and explode in the fall.

But bee populations do the opposite: Bee populations grow large in spring and diminish throughout the summer and fall.

Bee populations boom in spring, especially when a colony has overwintered. This is important to honey bees because they need copious workers to collect enough food to carry the entire colony through the next winter.

But wasp colonies do not overwinter. The queens alone hibernate and start a colony from scratch in the spring. Starting over means it takes a wasp colony time to get going. By the time a wasp colony is super populous, honey bee colonies are scaling back. And that makes wasps hazardous to bees: Wasps see bee colonies—especially those vulnerable colonies low on guards but rich with honey—as juicy and plentiful food sources.

Three tiny covered wasp nests. These nests will not overwinter.
Three tiny covered wasp nests. These nests will not overwinter.

Don’t forget to examine the tenants

Lastly, don’t forget to see who’s living in the nest. When I find solitary wasps hanging from the eaves, I usually leave them alone unless they are right above a doorway. But I try to discourage big colonies of yellowjackets and hornets because they will cause trouble later.

If you can’t tell a wasp from a bee, look for hair. Most bees are hairy or furry, a characteristic that helps them collect pollen. Wasps lack hair, so they are shiny.

Pollen, either collected in balls or stuck on the insect’s body, usually indicates a bee. However, both bees and wasps drink nectar from flowers, so foraging in flowers is not enough to tell them apart. 

The more you know, the better you will do

Like so many other issues related to beekeeping, learning to identify the nests in your area can also help you become a more successful beekeeper. Once you learn to recognize a colony of social wasps in the making, you can take proactive measures to protect your hives before fall.

Video of a wasp building a nest

EXTRA! Yesterday, Julian in Wales sent me a link to a video of a solitary wasp constructing a nest. It shows the wasp beginning a new base, adding the stalk (petiole), building the first cells, and laying a few eggs. Having done that, she builds the covering for her solitary home before expanding the brood area. Outstanding!

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Combs inside a wasp nest. The top of the nest is on the right.
Combs inside a nest of aerial yellowjackets, Dolichovespula arenaria. The top of the nest is on the right. Rusty Burlew

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.


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8 Comments

  • In accordance with my long-standing policy of recommending work for anybody not me, I wish you had identified your wasps and their nests more specifically. (I guessed the second photo was a European Paper Wasp, but the other two waspy photos didn’t look like anything on my chart. And I don’t even have a helpful chart of nests.)

    Also, very peripheral to topic, I recently assembled a Lego kit with a small yellow piece that looked like a skep, which made me happy. And then the directions had it hanging from a tree, so it instantly turned from a bee home to a wasp nest, and made me sad. : (

    • Roberta,

      Identifications: I will work on that. Thanks for saying what you don’t like.

      Legos: That’s too funny. You’d think with all the attention bees are getting these days, people would figure out that bees don’t build things like that. It’s like kids are taught, “Bees are good and wasps are bad.” But the skeppy hives (filled with wasps) are good. Go figure.

  • Off-topic but wanted to mention that we are seeing many, many Great Golden Digger Wasps. I love seeing them. They love the alliums and the Queen Anne’s Lace. Also see them on my snowberries. (east side of Olympia and north Thurston County.)

  • Hello Rusty,

    Thanks for this excellent review of the differences in nests, and examples of wasp nests.

    This year in Wales, after a very poor spring, I noticed very few wasps. In the last month, I’ve found 8 active nests all within 50 yards of each other – 4 underground, 2 beneath slates on a roof, 1 inside an outbuilding, and 1 suspended in a shrub. That’s a heck of a lot of wasps, since 3 years ago I dug out a football sized underground nest at the end of the season and counted about 2000 cells in a single plane or storey. And how many nests have I walked past?

    Your readers might be interested in seeing just how the queen wasp begins to build its nest, which I filmed over 4 days last year, when one began to construct its nest above the foot of our bed, in our old cottage, attaching it to the roof purlin. A true marvel of nature!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDHD-gBROfk&t=94s

    Thanks again and best wishes,
    Julian

    • Julian,

      That’s very cool! And you are very patient. Thank you. I added a link to your video at the bottom of my post.

      I enjoyed watching it.

  • Thanks Rusty, glad you liked it, and thanks for adding in the link – I couldn’t find many other videos online showing just how they do it. Fiona was getting a bit fed up with me balancing on the middle of the mattress to film it, after a day or two.

    Best wishes,
    Julian

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