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
The following table lists the top nine ways to tell if you are looking at a ground bee or a yellow jacket wasp:
|Ground Bees||Yellow Jackets (Wasps)|
|Active in early spring||Most active in late summer and fall|
|Hourglass body shape with small waist||Long, slender body shape with a|
very distinct narrow waist
|Hairy body, and often hair on the head and legs||Shiny body with fine bristles|
|Eat nectar in flowers||Eat other insects, nectar, fruits, meat, |
soft drinks, and human food and garbage
|Might mock charge but won’t chase||Will chase people|
|Females sting once and die||Females can sting many times and live|
|Broader, flattened back legs, to carry pollen||Hind 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 flight||Fast, 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:
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
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:
- 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.
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
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: