9 Ways To Tell A Ground Bee From a Yellow Jacket Wasp (With Pictures)

by | Ground Bees, Insects, Yellow Jackets (Wasps)

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If you’ve seen insects building nests in the ground and buzzing around your backyard, you’re probably wondering if these are beneficial ground bees or yellow jackets.

The quick answer to telling the difference between these insects is…

Ground bees have a fuller hourglass figure and furry bodies. Yellow jackets have smooth, lean bodies with a visible waist, and yellow and black markings. The bees aren’t aggressive, and they eat nectar from flowers. The wasps are aggressive, and they eat meat, insects, garbage, and fruits.

But there’s a lot more to telling the difference between ground bees and yellow jackets than just the above – and knowing more will help you to correctly identify and treat the issue you might be having in your yard, if you need to, and in a way that’s safe for you, your family, and your pets…

How to tell ground bees from yellow jackets

Picture showing a miner ground bee next to a yellow jacket wasp for comparison

The following table lists the top nine ways to tell if you are looking at a ground bee or a yellow jacket wasp:

Ground BeesYellow Jackets (Wasps)
Active in early springMost active in late summer and fall
Hourglass body shape with small waistLong, slender body shape with a
very distinct narrow waist
Hairy body, and often hair on the head and legsShiny body with fine bristles
Eat nectar in flowersEat other insects, nectar, fruits, meat,
soft drinks, and human food and garbage
Might mock charge but won’t chase.
Not aggressive
Will chase people.
Females sting once and dieFemales can sting many times and live
Broader, flattened back legs, to carry pollenHind legs are long and look much the
same as the other legs
Most are solitary, with only one
female per ground nest
Social insects, with many living in
the one ground nest
Smooth landings after flightFast, side-to-side movements before landing

Here’s a great video that shows the differences between bees and wasps that I found very helpful:

Keep reading if you want to know what yellow jackets are and how to recognize each body part on a yellow jacket…

Are yellow jackets actually bees?

Some people call yellow jackets “meat bees”, but yellow jackets aren’t bees at all – they’re wasps. In fact, they are only called yellow jackets in North America. In other English-speaking countries they are simply known as wasps.

It’s easy to confuse bees with yellow jackets when you’re not sure what to look for.

There are many, many types of ground bees in the world (14 000 species in total), and each one looks a little or a lot different to other ground bees.

There are only nine types of yellow jackets and all of them pretty much look the same, except for the bald-faced hornet, which is not a hornet but a wasp.

In fact, only experts can tell the difference between yellow jackets by looking closely at the black and yellow markings on their bodies, and at small differences in the markings on their faces.

For example, in a closeup picture like the one below, you might be able to tell the slight differences in the body markings between the German and eastern yellow jackets:

Picture showing a German yellow jacket next to an eastern yellow jacket wasp for comparison

Do you see how similar the two yellow jackets’ bodies look?

Because there are so many types of ground bees and quite a few yellow jackets, it’s impossible to give a complete comparison of each here. But if you use the nine points in the table above, you should have a fairly good idea if you have ground bees that are excellent pollinators or yellow jacket wasps nesting in your yard.

What yellow jacket wasps looks like, from head to stinger

Let’s take a look at the typical physical characteristics of yellow jackets and how to identify them, so you know if it’s definitely a yellow jacket or not…

The face and head of a yellow jacket

Closeup of a yellow jacket's face showing the yellow and black markings and mandibles

All yellow jackets have black and yellow or white markings on their faces. Each type of yellow jacket has slightly different markings, which helps experts tell them apart.

Yellow jackets have two large compound eyes, one to the left and one to the right of the head, and several simple eyes near the top of the head. All yellow jackets’ eyes are dark.

These wasps have strong mouthparts, called mandibles, to bite off and chew on meat and other foods. And they have other mouthparts that can suck nectar and liquids.

The body of a yellow jacket

All yellow jacket wasps’ bodies have three parts to them:

A closeup of a yellow jacket wasp with labels on the three parts of its body
  • The head
  • The thorax
  • The abdomen

A very narrow and distinct waist joins the thorax and the abdomen.

Like other insects, yellow jackets have a tough exoskeleton. This outer skeleton protects the soft parts of their body inside.

The average yellow jacket is 0.5 inch long (12 mm).

They all have yellow and black banded markings along their body, except for the bald-faced hornet which is black and white.

Photo of a bald-faced hornet showing the black and white markings on the body
Source: With thanks to David Cappaert, Bugwood.org

Different yellow and black marking patterns are found on different yellow jacket species, but it is very difficult to tell them apart unless you’re an expert.

Like ground bees, wasps have two sets of wings, with the front wings larger than the back wings. When they fly, they hook their wings together much like a ground bee does.

Yellow jackets have fine bristles on their body, not a lot of fuzzy fur like ground bees.

The stinger of a yellow jacket

Photo of a yellow jacket wasps flying into the underground nest
This photo shows a yellow jacket wasp flying into an underground nest. Yellow Jackets are often confused with ground bees.

Like ground bees, only female yellow jackets have stingers. They use their stinger to defend themselves or their nest, or to attack and kill prey. They do this by piercing their stinger into the flesh of their victim and releasing venom.

Male yellow jackets have no stingers and cannot sting or release venom.

Female yellow jackets have smooth stingers, so their stingers can be pulled out of their victim after stinging. This means they can sting many times and usually live to tell the tale. The wasps are aggressive and will sting you if they feel threatened.

On the other hand, female ground bees have stingers with barbs on them. When the bee stings something, the barbs hook into the victim and the stinger is ripped from the bee’s body as it tries to escape, thereby killing it.

Ground bees are not aggressive and are fairly easy to remove– click here to find out how to get ground bees out of your yard without chemicals.

But if you’re dealing with yellow jackets, it’s best to use these yellow jacket wasp traps from Amazon for your area or call in a professional for help. Otherwise, you could end up with a nasty sting like this:

Photo showing a bad reaction to the sting of an eastern yellow jacket wasp
Source: With thanks to James Solomon, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

I'm Monique. I love gardening and spending time in my backyard growing things. Here's where I share what I know about backyard pests and what to do about them, so you can enjoy your yard too.

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Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.


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