GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Bees: Love them or hate them, they play an important role in our global ecosystem, in our economy and even in our backyards. But do they deserve the bad wrap they receive as a scary, stinging menace?

One Michigan researcher says no and wants to sort out which bugs are harmless and which ones you’ll want to avoid.

David Lowenstein is a consumer horticulture educator for the Michigan State University Extension. He said it is important to understand the key differences between bees and the wasp family, which includes hornets and yellowjackets. Yes, bees can and will sting, but only if they are provoked. Otherwise, they are docile.

“You have to really try hard to get stung by a bee,” Lowenstein told News 8. “Bees are out searching for two things. When they leave their nest, they want pollen and they want nectar. The pollen they bring to their babies to feed them and the nectar is their sustenance. So a bee is not likely to sting anyone unless you try disturbing it. Swatting right at it is never a good idea for any unknown insect.”

Outside of messing with the bee’s nest, you should be fine.

“If you disturb the nest, (let’s say) you find the bees’ nest in the ground, poke your fingers in there, really bother it. (You might get stung.) Even so, there are small bees that you can destroy their nests and they might buzz around your head but you’re still not likely to get stung,” he said.

An up-close look at an Eastern yellowjacket. (Johnny N. Dell/Bugwood/University of Georgia)


The problem is identifying the bugs. The MSU Extension says there are 16 different types of bees commonly found across Michigan. That doesn’t factor in hornets, yellowjackets and wasps.

So how do you tell the difference? Experts say to look for fuzz.

According to Orkin Pest Control, bees are “more full-bodied, hairy and appear to be fuzzy, a characteristic that helps them collect and disseminate pollen. Wasps are more slim-bodied, have slender legs and their body appears non-hairy and shiny.”

Being able to tell bees and wasps apart is key, but Lowenstein said even most wasps are pretty harmless as long as you leave them alone.

“We have about 100,000 species of wasps around the world. The vast majority of those wasps are (not aggressive),” he said. “Most wasps are solitary, meaning that one wasp lives in one nest and she is hunting for some kind of food item to bring back what she feeds to her offspring. That could be spiders, katydids. … There are plenty of good wasps (that help our ecosystems).”

He said there are five to 10 different species in Michigan that are aggressive, but three stand out as the worst offenders. They are the bald-faced hornet, the Eastern yellowjacket and the paper wasp.

“If you are too close to them while they are out foraging, while they are out flying, they might view that as an act of aggression and they may sting you. And (unlike honeybees), a wasp can sting multiple times,” he said.

A photo of a bald-faced hornet’s nest. (Rita Parkins/Bugwood/University of Georgia)

You can tell the difference between the three wasps by their nests. Bald-faced hornets make the large, oblong-shaped hive that looks like it is made of out papier-mache.

“If someone were to come across one of them and that nest is high up in a tree, not posing a risk to anyone, leave it until there’s a freeze in October or November. Because trying to get one of those nests down is not easy. Even spraying it with an aerosol, you’re still probably going to get stung,” Lowenstein said.

Yellowjackets, on the other hand, typically nest in the ground or in ready-made holes.

“They have holes that are maybe dime- to nickel-shaped, and you’ll see the (yellowjackets) coming in and out,” Lowenstein said. “Sometimes, you will see the hole. Sometimes, it will be covered in some grass or brush. Those are the ones you have to watch out for because people might accidentally step on that hole or come too close to it without realizing.”

An up-close photo of a European paper wasp. (David Cappaert/Bugwood/University of Georgia)

Paper wasps typically nest on patios or under eaves and have small, hexagonal nests that look like honeycomb. Paper wasps are considered the least aggressive of the three species. Their nests typically house between 10 and 50 wasps. If the nests are destroyed, they tend to fly away instead of attack.


Depending on which pest you have hanging around your backyard, it’s up to you whether you want to leave them be or destroy the nest.

For Lowenstein, he said it’s all up to your comfort level.

“Out of those three, the paper wasp is the only one that I would feel comfortable trying to get rid of myself,” he said. “It depends on your level of risk and where the nest is. If the nest in a place where there’s not a lot of traffic, not a lot of kids in the area, you’re not mowing over it, it’s best to leave it alone.”

He continued: “The problem is when they are in places where we don’t want to coexist with them: on our lawns where we play soccer or maybe they are right above your backdoor and they buzz at you all the time. In those situations, depending on where it is and your tolerance of risk, there are insecticides you could use.”

Lowenstein said aerosol insecticides can be effective on paper wasps but a broom or a hose can also get the job done. For yellowjackets, the most effective tools are dust insecticides.

If you are using insecticides, make sure you are using tools made specifically for the insect you are targeting and make sure you aren’t contaminating your garden.

“Just make sure that it is labeled for control of wasps and that you’re not spraying them in an area where there might be blooming flowers, because that can accidentally poison other insects like bees that might visit those flowers,” he said.