In A Nutshell
Bees are furry and wasps are not. Bees use pollen to make and eat honey, while wasps are carnivores. Hornets are typically black and white or black and yellow, while bees are usually a more golden color. Bees die when they sting but wasps, hornets, and bumblebees don’t. They also all have differences in nesting and protection of their territory.
The Whole Bushel
First, there’s an easy way to tell between honeybees (the most common) and wasps—bees are furry, and wasps are smooth and generally hairless. Honeybees will generally leave you alone unless you bother them and will then leave you alone if you stop, and they die shortly after they sting. Wasps, by contrast, do not die after stinging. They are known to attack unprovoked, and—especially if their nests are disturbed—will chase people hundreds of yards once in attack mode. Also, bees collect pollen and pollinate flowers; wasps are carnivorous, eat other insects, and do not help with pollination.
There are also a couple of variations on wasps: hornets, which are larger and have black and white rings instead of black and yellow; and yellow jackets, which closely resemble wasps but nest underground instead of above ground. Like wasps, hornets and yellow jackets can sting multiple times. Their venom (and honeybee venom) can be deadly for those with allergies (and not exactly pleasant for those without).
Also, let’s not forget about the other type of bee—the bumblebee. They may have the cutest name, but you’ll know one when you see one by the fact that it’s absolutely huge, very loud in flight, and capable of inducing panic attacks in otherwise rational adults. They have black and yellow stripes and pollinate like honeybees—but like wasps and their cousins, bumblebees can sting you as many times as they like.
Show Me The Proof
Bees, Wasps, and Hornets: What You Need To Know
Gardeners.com: All About Yellow Jackets,
Bees and Their Kin