"Bumblebee, honey bee, yellow jacket, paper wasp…what’s the difference? I don’t know if this comprehensive guide to Yellow Stripey Things is entirely truthful or not — a bumblebee is “actually a flying panda” and a yellow jacket “is just an asshole” — but it is pretty entertaining.
Carpenter bees are mostly harmless:
Male carpenter bees are quite aggressive, often hovering in front of people who are around the nests. The males are quite harmless, however, since they lack stingers. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but seldom will unless they are handled or molested.
Honey bees don’t always sting just once:
A honey bee that is away from the hive foraging for nectar or pollen will rarely sting, except when stepped on or roughly handled. Honey bees will actively seek out and sting when they perceive the hive to be threatened, often being alerted to this by the release of attack pheromones.
Although it is widely believed that a worker honey bee can sting only once, this is a partial misconception: although the stinger is in fact barbed so that it lodges in the victim’s skin, tearing loose from the bee’s abdomen and leading to its death in minutes, this only happens if the skin of the victim is sufficiently thick, such as a mammal’s.
Queen and worker bumblebees can sting. Unlike in honeybees, a bumblebee’s sting lacks barbs, so the bee can sting repeatedly without injuring itself; by the same token, the sting is not left in the wound. Bumblebee species are not normally aggressive, but may sting in defence of their nest, or if harmed.
And yes, you can actually pet a bumblebee:
Unlike yellowjackets and hornets, which can be very aggressive, polistine paper wasps will generally only attack if they themselves or their nest are threatened. Since their territoriality can lead to attacks on people, and because their stings are quite painful and can produce a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction in some individuals, nests in human-inhabited areas may present an unacceptable hazard. By all accounts, they are aggressive and easily agitated.
The cicada killer wasp look fierce but are generally only dangerous to cicadas:
Solitary wasps (such as the eastern cicada killer) are very different in their behavior from the social wasps such as hornets, yellowjackets, and paper wasps. Cicada killer females use their sting to paralyze their prey (cicadas) rather than to defend their nests; unlike most social wasps and bees, they do not attempt to sting unless handled roughly.
Mud daubers don’t sting people that often and prey on spiders:
Black and yellow mud daubers primarily prey on relatively small, colorful spiders, such as crab spiders (and related groups), orb weavers and some jumping spiders. They usually find them in and around vegetation. Blue mud daubers are the main predator of the black and brown widow spiders.
Bonus stinging insect fact: There’s a sting pain index that entomologist Justin Schmidt first came up with in the 80s. Schmidt has been stung by almost everything with a stinger and rated the stings on a scale of 1 to 4 (least to most painful). He has also described the stings of individual insects more colorfully:
Western honey bee (level 2) — “Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye then with sulfuric acid.”
Giant paper wasp (level 3) — “There are gods, and they do throw thunderbolts. Poseidon has rammed his trident into your breast.”