There are many kinds of wasps and bees. Some species are solitary insects and others, like honeybees, bumblebees and yellowjackets are social insects which live in colonies. Honeybee colonies can survive for years. Bumblebee and yellowjacket colonies usually die out in late fall and are reestablished the next year by fertile females.
Honeybee, bumblebees and yellowjackets defend their nests and will sting intruders. Honeybees have a barbed sting which remains in a person’s skin. Each bee can only sting once and then dies, but hundreds of bees may sting a victim.
Yellowjackets and bumblebees have a smooth sting which does not stay in a person’s skin. Each insect can sting multiple times and can also bite. Some yellowjackets make nests in cavities in the ground and other species make nests in walls or buildings. Yellowjackets that build aerial nests are commonly called hornets. Yellowjackets look somewhat like honeybees. Their bodies are black with jagged bands of bright yellow (or white in the case of hornets) on the abdomen and have very short, narrow waists.
You should not spray wasps or bees with water or swat at them since the insects are more likely to sting when disturbed or injured. Yellowjackets and honeybees which build nests near homes can pose a hazard to people nearby. A commercial pest control company should be hired to get rid of an unwanted colony.
For more information see
UC Pest Notes #7450, “Yellowjackets and Other Social Wasps” at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7450.html
UC Pest Note #7449 “Bee and Wasp Stings” at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7449.html
By V. Lazaneo, Urban Horticulture Advisor, Emeritus, UC Cooperative Extension, August 2012