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Ask a summertime picnicker what their biggest annoyance is, and the answer will likely be “bees.

” Landing on uncovered
food and drink with impunity, these insects aren’t particularly inclined to leave once they’ve tasted the ambrosial
offerings that constitute the average picnic. If irate diners press the issue by brandishing paper plates and rolled
newspapers, they won’t hesitate to defend their newfound bounty with a sting. Or four.

That latter ability is perhaps the most-acute indication that the prime suspects in a typical picnic raid are not bees at
all. In all likelihood, the culprits are actually close cousins to the bees: wasps. Unlike bees, which can sting only
once—the process is ultimately fatal to them—wasps can sting multiple times and buzz merrily away (assuming
that they aren’t crushed by their outraged victims).
Even the most-uninterested observer can distinguish them in ways that don’t involve being pumped full of venom, though.
While the bees and wasps constitute some 20,000 species each—both groups belong to the order Hymenoptera, which
also contains ants—the insects most likely to be conflated are honeybees (Apis mellifera) and any of several
representatives of the wasp genera Vespula(commonly known as yellow jackets).
If you take a look at the insects, you can see what causes the confusion. Both yellow jackets and honeybees are
somewhat bullet-shaped striped insects with wings. (Bees are thought by some entomologists to have evolved from
predatory wasps.) However, closer examination of both their appearances and their behavior reveals some key

Unlike honeybees, which sport a light coat of downy hair—some of which assists in collecting pollen for later
consumption by attracting it with static electricity as they sip nectar from flowers—yellow jackets sport a spartan
crew cut more suitable to their proclivities for hunting other insects and scavenging in order to feed their larval
siblings. (Adult yellow jackets subsist on nectar and other sources of sugars. They hunt animal food only to nourish their
squirmy white little sisters, which in return secrete a nourishing fluid.) Yellow jackets exhibit further adaptations to their
raiding ways: aerodynamic and nipped at the waist, they are perfectly suited to taking down other insects or darting in to
grab their share of whatever carrion and waste is on offer. Honeybees, in contrast, have no need of such exacting
maneuverability as they bop from flower to flower; this is reflected in their more-rounded form, their bodies not tapering to
the fighter-jet points of the yellow jacket. So, too, it is reflected in their neighborly absence from your outdoor repast; the
human palate craves victuals totally unappetizing to bees.
The next time, then, that one of your lunch companions bolts from the picnic table sounding the bee alarm, you might
advise him or her as to the true identity of the culprit. And then, once the spread has been safely sealed from prying
insects, perhaps invite your companions for a stroll and, along with the real bees, stop and enjoy the flowers.