“Ah, a bee!”

It’s such a common reaction when a buzzing insect comes near a person, whether adult or youth.

But the word “bee” is overused, and most people actually don’t what insect they are encountering and why they usually shouldn’t be afraid of it.

Last week, we talked about the difference between honeybees and native bees (click here to read that post), and as promised, this week we’re going to delve into information on carnivorous bee-like insects.

You probably know these species as yellowjackets, hornets and wasps. Although there are many species of each, today I’ll highlight a few that you might encounter in your Iowa yard.

Photo of a pelecinid wasp

Pelecinid wasp by Sydtron, via Wikimedia Commons

Pelecinid wasp

The long abdomen of this wasp is usually what terrifies people as it looks like it would extend its reach to sting. However, it is actually used to deposit eggs onto the backs of grubs in the ground. When the egg hatches, it will use the grub for food.

These wasps don’t even sting. See, nothing to be afraid of!

Photo of a yellowjacket by a hole

Eastern yellowjacket by Famartin, via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern yellowjacket

We get so many calls about aggressive honeybee hives nesting in the ground in a yard, because people mistake yellowjackets for honeybees simply because yellowjackets are also striped black and yellow.

There are many differences, but honeybees are fuzzy, have more brown than black and don’t nest in the ground.

Yellowjackets are very defensive. They are carnivorous, so they don’t lose their stingers and can sting repeatedly. They like sweet treats, so they are most likely what you see around your can of pop on a summer day.

If you see one, don’t swat at it, because when in danger, a yellowjacket can release a pheromone that other yellowjackets can sense. Walk away!

Photo of paper wasps building a nest

Paper wasp

Paper wasp

Paper wasps are often confused with yellowjackets because they have similar coloring. You will know them by the paper-like nests they make by chewing up soft wood and making a mash with their saliva, usually found under eaves and porch overhangs, in hollow places or in shrubs.

Paper wasps are carnivorous — stinging insects, paralyzing them and bringing them back to the nest — but they generally leave people alone unless their nest is disturbed.

Photo of a hornet

European hornet

European hornet

Technically the only hornet on the continent, this hornet is also an insect-eater. They are rarely found in urban areas but their paper nests can be found in hollowed trees, under porches in basements on under overhangs.

Like paper wasps, they will generally leave people alone unless disturbed.

Photo of a cicada killer by a nikkel

Cicada killer

Cicada killer

Named for their prey, cicadas, these wasps build their nests in the ground and lay eggs in underground tunnels. They will leave people alone in general but will sting if disturbed.

(Read “Five Bee Myths and Truths”)


  1. Rick Wohlwend on July 30, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    I found a large dead hornet on my back patio and was flying around in my garage earlier. Naturally I left it alone. Looking on the internet it could be an asian hornet. Do I need to worry about more being close? I did take a picture and kept it if interested.

    • kiley on July 31, 2018 at 8:14 am

      I’m not familiar with Asian hornets, but have forwarded your comment to our naturalists. Hornets do nest socially, so there may be more around, but they can also travel pretty good distances so it’s not guaranteed they are in your immediate area. You’re welcome to e-mail a photo to naturecenter@co.dickinson.ia.us if you would like us to take a look. Thanks for reading!

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