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What is a Meat Bee?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A meat bee is not a bee at all, but a wasp from either the Vespula or Dolichovespula genus. Meat bees are also known as “yellowjackets,” especially in the United States. Outside North America, they are more commonly referred to as “wasps.” Humans and yellowjackets often have contentious relationships, because these wasps can be quite aggressive about defending their territory.

The term “meat bee” is a reference to the fact that these wasps feed primarily on other insects. In fact, they can be quite beneficial as neighbors, since they eat an assortment of insect pests. They will also scavenge if they find meat lying around, as many picnickers have learned. In the fall, when the wasps need to store up energy, they may also scavenge on sweet drinks and fruit for the sugar.

Bees and wasps are close relatives, but they are very different creatures, despite the fact that they look similar enough for some people to refer to wasps as bees. One of the key differences between wasps and bees is that bees have evolved to feed on nectar and pollen, while wasps eat a variety of foods, depending on their species. In the case of the meat bee, humans are primarily concerned with the potential for painful stings which may be dealt out by a nest of infuriated wasps in self-defense.

A meat bee nest starts with a queen, who overwinters in a protective cocoon. She either takes over an animal burrow, or starts constructing a nest very close to the ground. The colony slowly grows, sometimes achieving a size of 1,500 individuals, and in the winter, the colony dies off with the cool weather. In temperate climates, a meat bee nest may endure through the winter, growing even larger the next year.

These social wasps are dangerous for humans because people often blunder into their nests, and the wasps respond by stinging in self-defense. For people with allergies to wasp stings, this can be quite dangerous. For everyone else, stings are painful and annoying, and they can sometimes cause medical problems if someone is stung by a large number of wasps. Wasps will also sting repeatedly, rather than just once, so after getting away from a wasp nest, it is a good idea to strip and shower to remove wasps from the body.

The meat bee should not be confused with the paper wasp, another social wasp which often lives close to humans. Paper wasps build chambered nests from a material which closely resembles paper, typically choosing high spots such as trees and eaves to nest in. These wasps are much less aggressive, unless they are disturbed, and some insect experts recommend leaving them as they are, rather than attempting to eradicate them.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Mysti — On Apr 22, 2017

I was a goldminer in the foothills (N. Cal) for some years, and we made wasp traps when the meat bees got too numerous.

Take a jar, fill it half full of water and pour cooking oil on top of the water. Use a stick you can lay across the top of the jar and tie a string to the middle. Tie a piece of meat at the end of the string, and lower it so that it hangs just a bit above the water. The meat bee will go for the meat, hang upside down to get at it, and the wings will be oil-soaked causing the bee to fall into the water and oil. You'll need to clean out the jar now and then, use fresh oil -- just a layer on top of the water -- and new meat.

Meat bees never stung any of us, except for me, when I was wearing a long skirt and one got underneath it and stung me four times before I could get it out. It was trapped or it wouldn't have stung me.

When we ate outside, we could expect meat bees to light on our plates most of the time.

Do not swat at them, or run from them.

They are generally not stingers, but will if you attack them.

By anon961295 — On Jul 16, 2014

In reference to post number 7. Meat bees will bite humans too since we are mostly meat. I too have been bitten without being stung and as you stated, while it is painful, it is far less pain than a sting.

If they get caught up in your hair or clothing you need to get them off of you ASAP because while they are attacking your clothes you are being marked with "sting here" pheromones. I found this out when I was golfing with some buddies. A yellow jacket got caught in the microfiber towel hanging on my bag. I tried to knock him loose but couldn't as it was so focused on total destruction of my towel. The other guys were saying kill it because he was marking the towel. That's why it wouldn't let go.

By anon349832 — On Sep 29, 2013

I also have lived in the Sierra foothills, and there was a ground dwelling wasp of some kind that would bite your legs if you walked through its nest area wearing shorts. It wasn't a sting from what I could tell. It hurt like a sting, but if you looked at the wound closely there was a chunk of skin and a bit of meat below it missing, like a little crater. It hurt but not like a sting would.

Has anyone else experienced these or was I imagining things? They looked just like a wasp but were on the smallish side compared to what I normally think of as a wasp.

By anon344347 — On Aug 08, 2013

Meat bees up in our area (Sierra foothills of California) love -- I mean *love* -- barbeques. The second you sit down with a freshly cooked piece of meat, whether you brought it from indoors, or took it off the barbeque, they'll be all over it and buzzing around you as well.

Last night, I made tuna sandwiches and just walked out of the house, sat down and had four descend on it before I could take a bite. (By the way, we had a kitten lose its tongue through surgery when it ate food with a wasp on it.)

Anyway, they seem more prevalent every third or fourth year and less so in between.

By anon289156 — On Sep 02, 2012

Mud daubers are not paper wasps. Mud daubers build little mud houses and feed on spiders, whereas paper wasps build the multi-chamber paper houses. I've never read of a mud dauber stinging anyone. they're quite pretty to look at and very docile. Paper wasps can be persnickety. Meat bees just plain suck.

By anon210575 — On Aug 31, 2011

I didn't know meat bees were wasps. This year, for some strange reason, our property is infested along with our neighbors'. I have seen them low to the ground and found it unusual. They have taken over the dog food and won't leave them alone.

Today I started my ride-on mower to cut down some weeds. I didn't think or know that i would be disturbing a nest. Well, in 10 seconds I was attacked by so many wasps. They clung to me and I could not get them off. They stung me through my jeans! They got in my hair and stung my head too! Five stings total, glad it wasn't more. It's been three hours and my stings are still on fire. Before knowing they are actually wasps, I noticed the sting was different from a bee. I have tried sprays but it does not affect them, that I noticed. How do I get rid of them? My neighbor said she got the pest control company to spray but they came back.

By Babalaas — On Oct 09, 2010

@ lokilove- This may be true normally, but here in Phoenix, the bees are the dangerous insects and the yellow jackets are very docile. If I had to live with yellow jackets or bees, I would choose yellow jackets.

Bees are responsible for the death of numerous people and pets every year, while the hornets rarely inflict serious harm on anyone. I have bees and yellow jackets that frequent the pool at my condominium complex, and the bees are the only ones that ever sting. The yellow jackets land right on the water and have a drink. They are so calm that you can swim right up to them and practically scoop them up. The bees on the other hand will buzz by you and sting you if your movements are too quick for their tastes.

By cougars — On Oct 09, 2010

I never knew there was such a difference between wasps, hornets and bees. The fact that some are carnivores, while others only drink nectar is interesting. Even though insects are so much simpler than vertebrates, their interactions with one another are so much more complex. You would never find a mammal or reptile that would kill another species just to implant babies in its carcass (something that some wasps do). It would be a strange experience to spend one day in the life of an insect.

By lokilove — On Dec 21, 2009

Yellowjackets are just plain mean sometimes! Look at one cross-eyed and it's coming after you!

We call the Paper Wasps mud daubers, they are almost docile compared to the yellowjackets, you'd have to make a real effort to get them mad.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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