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Is That a Bee or a Yellow Jacket?

Is That a Bee or a Yellow Jacket?

By Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Entomologist and Orkin Technical Services Director
Graphic courtesy of Orkin

When it comes to pollination, no insect is as important as the bee, and both bees and yellow jackets are vital to a healthy and productive garden. Bees pollinate everything from flowers to the garden vegetation that becomes the food we eat. Yellow jackets also pollinate, with an added asset: they eat beetle grubs, flies and other harmful pests. 

Despite the benefits, some species likely are unwanted guests in a gardener’s space. Most of these species also are stinging insects that can attack in order to defend their colony, often causing pain or allergic reactions. How can a gardener tell the difference between a bee and a yellow jacket, and why does it matter? Learn their unique traits to identify what’s buzzing in the garden.


All bees are hairy – a crucial trait for pollen collection and an easy way to identify them. Honey bees differ in appearance, depending on whether they are drones, workers or a queen, but the type most often seen is the worker. They are about 3/8 of an inch long, a mix of black or brown with yellow in color and have four clear wings. Their bodies also are more rounded than yellow jackets.

The European honey bee, which is common in the United States, typically does not build nests in the ground. Conversely, the similar-looking bumble bee does nest underground. Honey bee colonies are much larger than those of bumble bees.

Honey bees typically swarm from early spring to mid-fall, but are not overly aggressive and generally only sting when provoked or feeling threatened. Unlike yellow jackets, honey bees sting and inject venom only once and usually die within minutes of stinging. That doesn’t mean the attack is over, though: when they sting, a pheromone “marks” the victim, attracting more bees to attack. 

If stung, a person or pet should be moved to a safe location and stingers should be removed by scraping off the embedded stingers rather than squeezing with tweezers, which tends to force more venom into the skin.

Yellow Jackets:

Yellow jackets get their name from their yellow and black bodies. They are slightly longer than a honey bee, and although the coloring is similar to a bee, there is one key difference: yellow jackets are not hairy. In contrast to the bee, the yellow jacket’s waist is more torpedo-shaped, thinner and more defined. Its elongated wings are as long as its body and fold laterally when at rest.

Many yellow jackets are ground-nesters, unlike the honey bee. Their colonies can be found under porches or steps, in sidewalk cracks and even in snake holes or other burrows in the yard. Some yellow jackets will also build nests in bushes or low-hanging branches.

Known to be aggressive defenders of their colonies, yellow jackets are otherwise slow to sting. The sting of a yellow jacket is painful, and unlike a bee's, each yellow jacket is capable of delivering multiple stings – they are equipped with lance-like stingers containing small barbs, compared to honey bees’ larger barbs.

Prevention and Treatment:

Yellow jackets are attracted to fruit, so one prevention method is to keep trash cans closed and clean and clean up fruit fallen from trees so yellow jackets are unable to feed on the residue.

Since both yellow jackets and bees are beneficial pollinators, and yellow jackets are predators of many damaging insects, treatment should only be administered when the pests pose a stinging threat to people or pets. It is important to properly identify the particular species living near the home, as bees are often mistaken for other stinging pests. The pest management processes for wasps, yellow jackets and bees differ greatly, so effective treatment relies upon proper identification.

A treatment program should begin with a thorough assessment and correct identification by a pest management professional in order to determine safe and efficient removal techniques.

For more information on the differences between bees, yellow jackets and other stinging pests, visit

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