Page Banner

United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

How To Distinguish Bees from Other Insects

 

Did you know there are many kinds of bees?  Most people know about honey bees and bumble bees, but the continental U.S. and Canada are home to approximately 3,700 species of wild bees - bees that are different from honey bees.  They include bumble bees, blue orchard bees, mason bees, and the alfalfa leafcutting bee.  The Pollinating Insect Research Unit is developing methods to manage these bees, much the same way that people already manage honey bees.  The goal is to provide a tool box of pollinators, giving farmers and gardeners a variety to choose from.

 

Please see Related Topics to the left for information we have developed for various bees, and for disease control strategies.

 

Bees can also be confused with wasps or other insects found on flowers.  Wasps are mostly predators and scavengers, feeding on other insects, meat, compost, and sometimes your picnic.  Bees, on the other hand, are vegetarians, feeding only on pollen and nectar.  Bees also tend to have hairy bodies, making them look fuzzy, whereas wasps have shiny, hairless bodies.

 

A bee differs from other floral visitors in having been fed pollen as a larva.   If you see an insect toting a load of pollen either on its hind legs or beneath its abdomen, it is a female bee.   The pollen may be carried as a dry powder in a brush of hairs, or moistened with nectar to form a clump or pellet.   In general, bees are more hairy or fuzzy than their wasp kin.   Those that are relatively bare lack the silvery reflective facial hairs that give a flashy face to some related wasps.

 

An alfalfa leafcutting bee.  Notice the hairy appearance (as compared to wasps and yellow jackets). Large, furry bees that are black and yellow, are bumblebees.

 

Flower Fly: A number of harmless insects mimic the look of social bees and wasps. Most familiar among these are the flower flies (Syrphidae) whose resemblance to particular genera of social bees or wasps can be uncanny. Careful observation reveals diagnostic differences. Antennae of flower flies are short, having but a few segments terminating in a bristle; bees’ antennae are multi-segmented, narrowly cylindrical and longer. Flower flies have but one pair of wings, bees have two pair. Flower flies often hover, unlike our bees. Flower flies, though often hairy, do not accumulate loads of pollen under their abdomens or on their hind legs as female bees do. Nonetheless, they can be significant pollinators. Finally, no flower fly can sting or bite, unlike the social bees or wasps that they mimic.

 


Flower fly (Eristalis) at goldenrod

  

Yellow Jacket: Yellow jacket wasps (Vespula) are often mistaken for bees. Indeed, some folks call them “meat bees”, but they are in fact social wasps related to hornets and only distantly related to bees. Yellow jackets may on occasion visit flowers (or your water-melon slice) for sugar, but unlike bees, yellow jackets are carnivorous, eating insects, carrion and picnic fare. Hence, they have no brushes or pollen baskets for carrying pollen. They are relatively hairless and all resemble the one pictured here. Their nests are made of paper, not wax, typically built in shallow underground cavities. In only a few instances are they thought to be pollinators. Like honeybees and bumble bees, yellow jackets have a potent sting.

 

 

Yellow jacket eating plum

 

Honey Bee: Workers of the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) are undoubtedly the most familiar bees to North Americans. This is the bee whose perennial colonies are found in hollow trees and in the white wooden boxes managed by beekeepers for honey production and agricultural pollination. They are tan with varying degrees of orange or brown, more hairy than the yellowjacket, but less furry than the bumble bee. Like many bees, they transport pollen on their hind legs, but notably, their pollen is carried in a smooth, slightly concave pollen basket rather than in a dense brush of hairs. Their populations continue to suffer from two recent Old World afflictions, the Varroa mite and the tracheal mite. 

 


Honey bee worker (Apis mellifera) at aster flower

You may also be interested in the Pollinator of the Month articles.


Last Modified: 1/14/2014
Footer Content Back to Top of Page