Friend or Foe? A Guide to the Bee-wildering Array of Black and Yellow Flying Insects

As you may know, my name is Melissa. Because of this, I’ve always been interested in the story surrounding the mythological character.

There are several versions of the tale, my personal favorite being the one where she is said to be one of the various nymphs who raised the infant Zeus, feeding him milk and honey, who transformed her into a bee under unclear circumstances.

As far back as I can remember, the bee has been my familiar. At three, I entertained my dad to the point of hysterical tears running around as a ballerina bee. Upon turning thirty, I got a Bee tattoo, and even now, I have a dog named Bee. All along the way, the gift of choice for me was related to bees in some way.

Even the bees seemed to know their role in my life, and I avoided any stings until well into my thirties when a rebel bee flew up my shorts and stung my left cheek. But aside from the fat and fuzzy ones, I have a hard time identifying which stripey stinger is a good guy and which one would like to murder me slowly.

So, I asked local resident Lu Edwards, who has a BS in Entomology from Washington State University, to fact-check me.

Says Lu, “Though I have never worked using my degree, I try to keep up on my bugs. Over the years, I have taken my bug collection to Encompass, CVES and Snoqualmie Middle School (Freshman Campus) and shared my collection with the kids.” Lu also shared them with Girl Scouts when she lived in Arizona.

Thankfully, Lu agreed to help me identify the good guys and the angry guys we have flying around the Snoqualmie Valley.

The Bad Guys *Note this is all in good fun; there are no ‘bad guys’ in this situation.

Let’s start off with the biggest jerk of the group, the Yellow Jacket. Belonging to the wasp family, the V. pennsylvanica is the most common in the area.

Most of western species build their nests underground (and boy, you know that if you’ve ever stepped on one), but the now prevalent German Yellowjacket tends to build in the walls of homes. There are also Aerial Yellowjackets that build under the eaves of houses or in trees.

Yellow jackets are about 1/2 inch long, short and stocky. They are bright yellow and black or white and black. While they can be aggressive pests, especially around food, they do have their benefits, killing houseflies and other insects that can damage trees to feed their young. Nests should be left alone unless there is a sting risk.

The next critter with a bad reputation is the European Paper Wasp or Polistes dominula. Similar in color to the Yellow Jacket, they are longer and slenderer than their more aggressive cousin.

Identification is important as the Paper Wasp, like the Honeybee, will only attack if provoked and is good biocontrol for garden pests. These wasps build umbrella-shaped nests suspended underneath eaves, overhangs or the branches of trees. Wasps can turn raw wood into sturdy paper homes.

A wasp queen uses her mandibles to scrape bits of wood fiber from fences, logs, or even cardboard. She then breaks the wood fibers down in her mouth, using saliva and water to weaken them. The wasp flies to her chosen nest site with a mouth full of soft paper pulp.[1]

No conversation about stinging insects would be complete without talking about the Asian Giant Hornet,  V. mandarinia. The world’s largest species of hornet, it caused quite a buzz in December 2019 when the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) received and verified two reports of the hornet near Blain. There were two more sightings in British Columbia

Up to two inches long with a bright yellow head, these killers dwarf the 5/8” long honeybee.

The arrival of these large insects could have been particularly problematic because, according to the WSDA, “The Northern giant hornet attacks and destroys honeybee hives. A few hornets can destroy a hive in a matter of hours. The hornets can enter a “slaughter phase” where they kill entire hives by decapitating the bees.”

The hornets were again spotted in Washington and Canada in 2020 and 2021, and four Northern giant hornet nests were located in Whatcom County. In 2022, no hornets were detected.

*Note these were included just for fun. They are NOT in the Snoqualmie Valley

The Good Guys

First off is my personal favorite, the Western Bumblebee. The Bombus Occidentalis is the bee I remember the most from my childhood, but now, unfortunately, they are listed as vulnerable in our state in part due to a disease acquired from European bees while being commercially reared for crop pollination, insecticides, and habitat fragmentation.

Bumblebees perform buzz pollination or sonication to release pollen that is more firmly held by the plant, making them particularly effective for certain plants that require this kind of pollination. They can be identified by their white rear ends and bright yellow thoraxes (mid-section). These critters can sting multiple times due to their smooth stingers but are generally docile and will only sting if threatened.

If you see one of these fat and fuzzy bees, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) would like you to share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. A status review is currently being conducted to determine if the western bumblebee warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Next up is another one of my favorites, the Fairy Bee or Perdita.  I seem to see them often, but our resident expert, who likely notices insects far more than I do, says she has never seen one. Native to North America, there are 600 types of this tiny insect.

Fairy Bee near my home. Photo was taken by my neighbor Donna

It is one of the world’s smallest bees, with some species coming in at less than 2mm long and weighing 1/3mg. They are often brightly colored with metallic reflections.

These tiny bees are incapable of stinging and are completely dependent on a few species of flowers, Ocean Spray being one, which makes them prone to habitat fragmentation.

Lastly is the Western Honeybee. The Apis mellifera can be found on every continent except for Antarctica. These bees were one of the first domesticated insects and the primary species kept by beekeepers for their honey-producing and pollinating capabilities.

Honeybees are social insects and live together in nests or hives. They are known for the dancing movements they use in the hive to let their fellow bees know about food sources in the area. Says Lu, “Figure 8 is the pattern they do. Depending on their wiggle and the number of times they do the 8, it tells the hive the distance to the flowers.”  

These bees have yellow hair on the thorax of their bodies with black and tan-yellow stripes on their slender bodies. Like the Bumblebee, they are quite docile unless threatened, but unlike the bumble, they can only sting once as their stingers are attached to their abdomen and have hooks on them.  When the bee tries to fly away after stinging something, part of its abdomen is ripped away, killing the bee.

These bees are very important pollinators and are the primary pollinator for many plants. Without honeybees, these plants have greatly reduced fertility. Blueberries, for instance, cannot self-pollinate and produce sticky, heavy pollen, which means this plant relies on insects to help it achieve fertilization.

According to Washington State University experts, Honeybees are the single most important pollinator contributing to a healthy global food supply. Declines in insect pollinators worldwide present a challenge for food security.

If you’d like to help the Honeybee, visit The Bee Conservancy to donate or for ways to bee the solution. As Lu says, “No matter what insect we see (like them or not), they all play an integral part in our ecosystem. They all serve a purpose. Without them, our Earth would be in severe crisis or complete failure. We must coexist.”

~Thanks for all your help, Lu!

[1] How Wasps Build Their Nests From Wood (

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  • Did you consider that perhaps the Asian Giant Hornet is just overly motivated in wanting to get a head of others? 😉
    Your intro makes me speculate that your favorite song is Helen Reddy’s “I Bee Woman, Hear Me Buzz.”
    Interesting article. Thank you.

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