How to Identify Wasps & Bees in Michigan

In terms of their taxonomic classification, bees and wasps are related in that they all belong to the same order, but they belong to different families, and they differ in their appearance and behavior. However, given that they're all flying, stinging insects that build nests in which they lay their eggs and rear their grub-like larvae, some gardeners may have trouble distinguishing between species.

In general, bees feed on nectar and pollen, and their bodies are usually hairy. Wasps prey on other insects, and their bodies are typically less hairy. Both wasps and bees may be social species, which live in colonies with a single fertile queen, or solitary species, which build individual nests and don't live in organized groups.

Bee Species

Common bee species in Michigan include honeybees and bumble bees. Of the two types, honeybees are smaller, with a body length of 1/2 to 3/4 inches, and their abdomens are usually marked with black, brown or reddish bands. Bumble bees are much larger, between 1 and 1 1/2 inches long, and very hairy, with black and yellow markings on their abdomens. Both species are social and live in colonies; honeybees build nests in hollow spaces in trees and structures, and bumble bees build their nests in the ground, often in abandoned animal burrows.

Solitary bee species found in Michigan include carpenter bees and mining bees. Carpenter bees are large and look much like bumble bees; carpenter bees are less hairy, however, and their abdomens are often shiny and solid black in color. Mining bees are smaller, and their flattened abdomens are dark brown or black. Carpenter bees nest in wood, digging tunnels in it with their jaws, and often build nests in the eaves of buildings. Mining bees nest in the ground in tunnels that they dig themselves.

Wasp Species

Social wasp species in Michigan include the common paper wasp and the aerial yellowjacket. Paper wasps are about an inch long, with slender abdomens; they build their papery nests in high areas, such as in tree canopies or under the eaves of buildings. Yellowjackets are somewhat smaller, with wider abdomens that are typically marked with bright yellow and black bands. Yellowjackets build their nests in hollow spaces, such as abandoned animal burrows or inside the walls of buildings.

Solitary wasp species in Michigan include mud daubers and cicada killers. Mud daubers are large wasps with an extremely thin segment between the thorax and abdomen; they are often black but may also have an iridescent sheen. Cicada killer wasps are very large, between 1 and 1 1/2 inches long, and have black and yellow markings on their abdomens.

Stinging Danger

Most bees and wasps are capable of stinging, but most species are not aggressive and won't sting unless they're handled or otherwise directly threatened. Some species will, however, sting in defense of their nests, and when the nests are near areas where people are active, their defensiveness can be a problem. Although bee and wasp stings are painful, they usually don't pose a serious health threat; however, individuals who are allergic to the insects' venom may have a potentially life-threatening reaction to a sting.

Benefits and Management

Bees are very effective plant pollinators and they play a vital role in the ecosystem of the garden. Because their potential benefits usually outweigh the risks of their presence, bees should usually be left alone unless their nests are in inconvenient locations or they present a danger to allergic gardeners.

Wasps are typically not productive pollinators, but their presence in the garden may still be beneficial because they often prey on harmful insects. Some species, such as yellowjackets, may be aggressive, however, and they can be problematic if they nest near inhabited areas.

Improper removal of wasp or bee nests or treatment of nests with chemical insecticides can trigger a potentially dangerous defensive response from the insects, so control measure are best taken by qualified pest control technicians.