Not all wasps are yellowjackets

Where I grew up, the word “wasp” was uttered with derision and hate. A wasp was something to fear, to avoid, to kill. It was so bad, I can almost relate to the following incident.

Recently, a visitor to this site wrote to ask if I could identify a bee she saw in her garden. She was very excited, claiming it was the most beautiful bee she had even seen. She had managed to get a photo and asked if would post it along with the identification.

When I received the photo, I saw a wasp, although I didn’t know what kind. It was indeed beautiful and I asked her if I could send it on to Bugguide.net for identification.

A wasp is not a bee

She said, yes, I could send the photo of her bee on to Bugguide. In the meantime, I wrote back and explained why I believed it was a wasp.

She replied, more insistently than ever, that her “bee” was a bee. By now, I was wondering why she was calling on my help if she already knew everything. I let it go and waited for Bugguide. Their reply came a day later, confirming the creature was a wasp and naming both a genus and species.

When I sent the info and links along to her, she promptly withdrew the photo and permission to post it. It was her bee and she didn’t want to share.

Strange as it may seem, similar things have happened before. My site attracts bee lovers, and bee lovers want spectacular creatures that look like bees to be bees. They don’t want them to be wasps, and some, like this reader, refuse to believe it could happen.

Bees and wasps are closely related

Bees and wasps are not all that different. In fact, bees are wasps that opted for the vegetarian lifestyle. The only real difference between the two is that, over time, bees have developed specialized body parts that allow them to collect pollen and carry it back home.

Now, the wasps are a large and variable group of insects, and bees are thought to have evolved from just one branch of it, along with the spheciform wasps. But if you watch bees and wasps—particularly the solitary ones—it is hard to see much difference. They look alike, they act the same, they build homes in similar places, they live the same length of time, they raise young in a similar manner, and the adults sip nectar for energy. About the only difference is their choice of infant formula: the bees choose pollen and the wasps choose meat.

What I will do about it

Earlier in the year, after I posted a photo of a solitary wasp building a home in a bamboo tube, several people asked me what I was going to do about it. Do about it? Well, next spring I will watch the wasps emerge and, if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get a photo.

As bee lovers, we know that not all bees are honey bees, but it’s time we recognize that not all wasps are yellowjackets. Spend a few minutes on learning to recognize at least one type of wasp. You will soon get hooked on these fascinating and valuable creatures.


A solitary bee in a mason bee tube. Not all wasps are yellowjackets.

A solitary wasp in a mason bee tube. Not all wasps are yellowjackets. © Rusty Burlew.

Discover more from Honey Bee Suite

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.


  • Yay, something positive written about wasps! It’s odd to me how easy it is for folks to protect one species and then turn around and spray poison into another’s nest. As a beekeeper I’ve not only learned to co-exist w/ yellow jackets and wasps, but have grown to have such an appreciation for all insects that I didn’t have before. They’re just out there trying to feed their young and survive, just like our bees. Thanks Rusty!

  • Thanks for the information on wasps Rusty.

    I continue to be fascinated by how non aggressive most of what I always referred to as wasps are (like in the picture on the bamboo end). They seem to barely be defensive.

  • Out keeping an eye on bee activity among the white asters, I have seen a few smallish black wasps, pollinating away. In the garden, if you see a wasp, it has a cabbage looper larva in its jaws. Under separate e-mail, I will send you an image of Braconid wasp cocoons that have parasitized and killed a tomato hornworm caterpillar.

    Everyone has to have some kind of irrational fear. Mine is glass cocktail tables with sharp corners.

  • I think well over half of the calls to our bee club for removing bees are actually wasps or yellowjackets. No surprise.

    Is that image rotated? I’ve only seen the horizontal tube arrangement and was planning to deploy some nesting opportunities like that next year. If vertical is also an option I’d be glad to do that, too.

    • Mark,

      The tubes are horizontal, but they were way over my head so I was standing under them and aiming up, which makes it look like they are vertical. That said, bees nest in vertical tubes all the time, like still-standing elder canes and teasel stems. It might be fun to try a bunch of vertical tubes, though. I think I will. Thanks.

  • For several years I had grown to like wasps, to the point of sharing a bit of BBQ steak or chicken, really impressive watching them chew off a piece and fly back to their nest. UNTIL THIS FALL! I have turned into a mass murderer with a fly swatter. My first year beekeeping and They have been attacking my bees and carting them away, they’re even bold enough to enter the hive. I still apologize when I swat (takes several swats to kill) though.

  • Do you know the tv programme for children in the US called Maja the Bee? The following made me feel as though I was taking part in a Maja moment. About two years ago I fished an almost drowned wasp out of a cup that had stayed out all night on the garden table and got too much fluid in it for the wasp to escape. Anyway I lifted her or him out on the end of my finger half afraid of the consequence of this. No worries though, she groomed herself dry for about 20 minutes and every now and then issued a round bubble of fluid out of her mouth that had gathered there from all the dry cleaning that she was achieving. I even thought she combed and dried her hair. It was a very close to nature episode and I felt very over awed.

  • Rusty,

    I’ve even heard nature educators call wasps “bees” (in a lecture about bees) and left the talk wondering why I didn’t challenge the speaker then and there. Next time… As a child I was terrified of mud daubers and other skinny waisted wasps. Now they delight me.

    As for vertical vs horizontal tubes, I’ve had my skinny windchimes filled from below, but vertical with open end up and out in the open is a potential problem because of rainfall. No need to fiddle with what happens naturally, and I believe in trying new ideas for experiments sake, but in general success is best if the open end is a bit lower than the closed end.

    • Glen,

      That makes sense to me. If the tubes were under an eave or something, vertical with holes on top might work, but under seems better.

  • I have had a phobia for quite some time now of wasp bees and yelliwjackets sometimes it gets ro the point where i have to be in the middle of the rkad because bees are in the boulevard since my phobia has a major effect me i can never get over them cuz i freak out kr run if they circle me or come close to me what can i do to make them not chase me because every time something flies or buzzes past me fear builds up paralizes me and i run

  • Dear Rusty, Thank you for posting about wasps. I grow tomatoes at home and so try to nurture and support my various wasps, which assiduously patrol my gardens for caterpillars. I do not distinguish among the native/non-native crew, but find all of them interesting. This summer, the most beautiful wasp—new to me, very exciting—visited my garden for a few days, and I managed to get several excellent portraits. It is a green-eyed male of the genus Bembix. He was completely docile, just sipping nectar from the Rudbeckia. I am hoping a female nested nearby so I can see these creatures again next year. I would be happy to share one of his portraits with you.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.