Are Bees And Wasps Related?

This is a common question, and yes, bees and wasps are related.  It might even be said that a bee is a hairy wasp! 

Both bees and wasps belong to the insect order Hymenoptera, and also to the suborder, Apocrita.  The suborder Apocrita includes wasp-waisted insects that also have grub-like larvae that develop within a host species, gall or nest. 

In fact, the consensus is that bees evolved from wasps.

“Wasps (including hornets and yellow jackets) and bees are close relatives, sharing in common a grandmother 100 million “greats” ago.” – Wilson & Messinger Carril, authors of Bees In Your Backyard.

Steven Falk, author of Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland also states:

“There is little doubt that within the Apoidea, the hunting wasps came first and provided an ancestor that gave rise to bees” .

Falk also notes that bees (and also ants) are actually specialized wasps, and interestingly, certain hunting wasps are more closely related to bees than they are to other types of wasps.  These are wasps of the Crabonidae (e.g. digger wasps) and Sphecidae (sand wasps).  

A Field Digger Wasp, Argogorytes mystaceus .  This Crabonid wasp a small, slender wasp with a black body and thin yellow stripes on the abdomen.A Field Digger Wasp - Argogorytes mystaceus. This Crabonid wasp is more closely related to bees than to some other wasp species.

Misidentification: bees may look like wasps more often than you might think

The image that many people have of a bee is actually stereotypical of just one type: the bumble bee (Bombus).  However, there are many different types of bees and appearance is diverse – for example, some bees are bright green and quite different from Bombus.

A chubby, cuddly-looking furry bumble bee - it's the typical idea people have of all bees.  This one is foraging on pink restharrow flower growing from the sand.Above: The image that many people have of a bee is actually stereotypical of just one type: the bumble bee (Bombus). This one is foraging on restharrow.

Given the diversity in appearance, and that bees and wasps are related, it’s no surprise then, that misidentification between the two can occur, especially when the image that so many people have of a bee is limited to one type.

Example of bees that look like wasps 

For non-scientists, confusion can easily arise with fairly common species.

Below is a species of nomad bee (Nomada) - the Gooden's Nomad Bee, Nomada goodeniana.

Gooden's Nomad Bee - Nomada goodeniana a slender yellow bee with black stripes that looks like a wasp.Gooden's Nomad Bee - Nomada goodeniana is a bee that looks like a wasp.

Nomad bees are very wasp-like in appearance.  They are cleptoparasitic bees that target other bee species (the host) - i.e.  cleptoparasites are organisms that take over the nest or nest cell of the target host species.

The same Gooden's nomad bee just leaving a host bee nest - a tunnel burrow located in the ground.The cleptoparasitic Gooden's nomad bee just leaving a host bee nest.

In doing so, the cleptoparasite's offspring feed off the food supplies intended for that of the host.   Nomad bees typically lurk outside bee nests (often Andrena – mining species), enter and lay an egg inside a nest cell.  The emerging nomad bee grub kills the host’s offspring and snaffles the food intended for it.

In contrast, this hunting wasp (below) of the Crabonidae family, Argogorytes mystaceus (commonly known as the Field Digger Wasp) is not a cleptoparasite, but may be host species to other parasitic wasps species, such as the cleptoparasitic nyssonine wasp, Nysson spinosus.  

You'll note that whereas this wasp is black with yellow stripes, the bee above is yellow with black stripes.  They are about the same size as each other, and for those unfamiliar with these species of bee and wasp, the nomad bee could be mistaken for a wasp. 

Argogorytes mystaceus, the Field Digger Wasp as before, foraging on a purple knapweed flower.Argogorytes mystaceus, the Field Digger Wasp.

Like Andrena (mining) bee species, the Field Digger Wasp burrows a tunnel into soil and creates nest cells in which it lays an egg, then provisions the cell with food for emerging grubs.  

the same field digger wasp, rear view.The small Field Digger Wasp is very similar in size to a Nomad Bee.

A key difference however, is that whereas most bees provide food for their young in the form of nectar and pollen, wasps – including the Field Digger Wasp, provide food for their grubs in the form of other small invertebrates, such as bug nymphs. Although there are exceptions on both sides.  Some bees eat meat, and recently, it has even been argued that bees are not vegetarian at all, but are omnivores).  Additionally, there are wasps that feed pollen to their offspring.  

Black and yellow striped Field Digger Wasp on knapweed

  Field Digger Wasp:

  • Wasp
  • Makes a burrow and nest cells where its young are reared, just like Andrena (mining bees).
  • Provisions each nest cell with food such as bug nymphs for its young. 

Yellow Gooden's nomad bee with black stripes on yellow flower

  Gooden's Nomad Bee:

  • Bee
  • Is a cleptoparasite, so it doesn't make its own nest - instead it uses that of the target host.
  • For feeding its young, it relies on the food provided by the host bee for its own offspring.

Interestingly, the Field Digger Wasp is more closely related to bees than to social wasps  (Vespidae).

A social wasp (Vespid) species, a yellow wasp with black markings, this one perched on a leaf.The Field Digger Wasp is more closely related to certain bee species than it is to this social wasp (Vespid) species above.

Another type of bee that can be mistaken for a wasp include wool carders that have more yellow on their bodies.

Anthidium manicatum, Wool Carder Bees can look similar to wasps with its yellow and black markings.  Wool carders with more vibrant yellow tend to look quite like wasps. Foraging on a pink flower.Anthidium manicatum, Wool Carder Bees can look similar to wasps, depending on the amount of yellow on the body.

Even scientists can make mistakes!

The similarity between wasps and bees can even sometimes result in misidentification for experienced scientists.  A bee called Neolarra was originally thought to be a wasp when it was first discovered by scientists.

Neolarra pruinose female - photograph by The Packer Lab - Bee Tribes of the World - from Wikimedia Commons.Neolarra pruinose female - photograph by The Packer Lab - Bee Tribes of the World - from Wikimedia Commons.

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