Bees vs wasps: Which insect is really worthy of all the buzz?

Bees get all the good PR compared with wasps, but how do their talents measure up? New Scientist pits these insects against each other in eight different categories, from cognitive skills to stings, architecture to cunning

Environment 12 July 2022

A bee and a wasp perch on flowers

Ian Grainger + JJ Gouin/Alamy

IT IS a beautiful, sunny day. The smell of a barbecue is in the air and a bee is bumbling from flower to flower. Everything feels perfect. Then a wasp appears, stirring up rather different feelings: fear, loathing, anger.

Our widespread dislike of wasps – and love of bees – goes back a long way. “Hornets and wasps… are devoid of the extraordinary features which characterise bees,” wrote Aristotle more than 2000 years ago. Was he right, or is there more to wasps than most people think?

It is hard to fairly compare different animals, but we enjoy a challenge, so here we pit the talents of bees against those of wasps in eight categories, from cognitive skills to stings, architecture to navigation. Which of these insects should we be buzzing about?

European honey bee (Apis Mellifera) Meetyourneighbours.net project

MYN/Clay Bolt/naturepl

Communication

“Most social insects communicate with a vocabulary of chemicals and vibrations,” says Fred Dyer at Michigan State University. This includes bees and wasps.

Honeybees use their abdomens to drum up vibrations to create a “get to work” signal. Wasps also engage in gastral drumming, banging their abdomens against the walls of the nest when there is food nearby.

Bees and wasps emit hisses, buzzes and chirps, and wasp larvae make a popping sound to alert adults that they need food. On the chemical front, individual social bees and wasps release substances to communicate and provoke responses, such as recruiting others to join them in getting food or inciting them to defend their home. Queen honeybees produce a chemical mix called the “queen signal” that physiologically alters the development of other bees, suppressing reproduction and keeping all the …

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