Bee Identification

There are between 20,000-25,000 species of bees and many of them resemble each other, making it harder to identify them

Perhaps the insect that gets more than its share of bad publicity during the spring and summer months is the bee. Broadly speaking, the typical person commonly associates certain characteristics with this supposedly notorious insect: black and yellow stripes, buzzing around, making honey, and tormenting people with their stinger.

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    Identifying Types of Bees

    There are between 20,000-25,000 species of bees worldwide, and the vast majority of them are not aggressive and are reluctant to sting. In fact, bees are primarily beneficial insects and are far more helpful to have around than they are harmful.

    Even professional bee experts and beekeepers struggle with identification at times, simply because it’s so difficult to examine these insects without getting very close to them, something that presents a couple of problems: many species of bees move very quickly as they’re darting and buzzing around, and some of them will attack people – sometimes in massive numbers – if they get too close to a nest. 

    Not only do many of the species of bees closely resemble each other, but they may also be confused with other insects, some of which, for a variety of reasons, even mimic particular bees. Knowing certain general characteristics makes it easier, therefore, to separate bees from other insect species, such as wasps, which are, in fact, closely related to bees. 

    The two most common characteristics in this regard are social grouping and markings. 

    Something that all bees have in common is that they are all members of the Apoidea family, which does include wasps; however, not all bees are black and yellow, make honey, or have stingers. In addition to being members of the general insect family, they also possess the following characteristics:

    Three pairs of simple eyes (very small and on top of their head) in addition to their compound eyes Abdomens with nine segments, the last of which is modified to contain a stinger
    A thorax with three segments, and each segment has a pair of legs A pair of membranous wings behind the second segment of the thorax (four single wings - two on each side of the body. All four wings may or may not be instantly visible, especially when the bee is resting)
    Mouths with both a proboscis (for sucking up nectar) and a mandible (for chewing food) Jointed antennae with 12 or 13 segments, which contain receptors that allow bees to smell, taste, and touch, as well as short hairs that detect air movement

    There are also instances when bees and certain flies may be mistaken for one another, simply because there are certain species of flies that have evolved to resemble bees. One of the ways for a person to differentiate the two is by observing grooming behaviour. Both insects groom, but bees are more likely to be seen grooming by cleaning their backs, limbs, and antennae in a kind of ‘wiping’ fashion.

    One of the primary markings that help in bee identification is whether or not an insect is carrying pollen. If it’s carrying pollen, it’s a bee; however, if an insect isn’t carrying pollen, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a bee, simply because not all bees collect and carry pollen. 

    Of the bee species that are pollen collectors, they most often carry the powdery material either with their hind legs or in pollen baskets called corbiculae. Things for which to look when a bee is transporting pollen on its hind legs is whether or not the pollen is smooth, compacted, and firm (social bee) or has more of a loose appearance (solitary bee).

    Additionally, some solitary bees (such as the Leafcutter Bee) carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen.

    There are also three more general methods to help in at least narrowing down the possibilities of correctly identifying a specific bee. First, have an understanding of the bees that are native to an area. Having that knowledge handy immediately limits the types of bees. 

    Second, carefully observe the habits of the bee(s) in question. If there’s a large number of them together, there’s a strong chance that they’re one of the bees in the social group, while if a smaller bee were chewing or cutting up leaves, it would be a good bet that it’s a Leafcutter Bee, which belongs to the solitary group. 

    Finally, try to find the nest (if the bee may be an Africanized Honey Bee, do not, under any circumstances go looking for the nest. This is one of the most dangerous, and perhaps the most dangerous, of all bees). Some bees (such as the Carpenter Bee) nest in wood, while many others (such as the Plasterer Bee) nest in the ground. 

    Knowing what to look for in a nest can also help in differentiating between a bee and a wasp since a wasp’s nest is made from chewed wood and has a papery look to it.

    Carpenter bees are solitary bees that usually live in individual nests

    How to Identify Common Types of Bees?

    Probably the most well-known types of bees are the Honey Bee, the Bumble Bee, the Carpenter Bee, and various types of ground bees. On the whole, bees are broken into two groups:

    Social Bees

    This is the group of bees about which most people think when they picture a bee. These are the bees that form colonies in large hives and have dozens upon dozens of bees crawling over each other, constructing combs, tending to their queen, feeding their larvae, and making honey. These bees are typically broken down into three more specific groups:

    • Bumblebees
    • Honey Bees
    • Africanized Honey Bees


    Solitary Bees

    This group of bees usually constructs individual nests and does so in the ground, in wood, or even in cracks in mortar or bricks. The list is a bit more extensive:

    • Carpenter bees
    • Ground bees
    • Digger bees
    • Mining bees
    • Leafcutting and mason bees
    • Sweat bees
    • Plasterer bees
    • Yellow-faced Bees


    The following is a list of what are generally considered the 10 most common types of bees, along with a brief presentation of the characteristics for which to look in identifying each.

    Africanized Honey Bee

    This bee was created when scientists in Brazil experimented with breeding certain types of bees and ended up creating a particularly aggressive species. They eventually escaped from the lab and entered the wild. Their primary geographical location is now in the Southeast and Southwest of the United States and South America.

    It is nearly impossible to differentiate Africanized Bees from their cousin, the standard Honey Bee, with the naked eye. The most general way of doing so is to observe the difference in temperament, as the Africanized Bee is highly aggressive (stings and attacks excessively) and the Honey Bee is docile. The other method of separating the two is by measuring the wingspan, which is difficult for obvious reasons.

    This bee has the same general physical characteristics as the Honey Bee: as a social bee, it colonises in groups but smaller ones than the Honey Bee. Their nests are known to be found in strange places, such as boxes, crates, abandoned cars, and tires. It has a thin, golden-brown body with black abdominal stripes, is oval in shape and is about ½” long.


    This is typically the ‘standard’ bee about which most people think when they picture the buzzing, summer pest. This is the bee that is commonly moving about your garden during the warm months. Physically, the Bumblebee resembles the Carpenter Bee and is slightly smaller, though it can be about twice the size of the Honey Bee. 

    It is social in nature, fat and furry (covered with hair called setae), oval in shape, about 1” long, and is black with yellow bands around its abdomen. There are approximately 50 species of this bee that are native to the United States.

    The bumblebee is an elite pollinator, probably only second to the Honey Bee. It pollinates a wide variety of plants, garden flowers, and agricultural crops. One of the more revealing characteristics in identifying this bee is the sound it makes when inside a flower, which is the loud ‘buzzing’ that is typically associated with bees. 

    This process is called sonication, which simply means that the female Bumblebee is using the vibrations from her wing movements to shake the pollen loose from the flower. When the pollen is collected, the females groom the pollen back onto their hind legs and into their collection baskets.

    This species of bee is a highly social insect, living in colonies sometimes ranging from as few as 50 to as many as 400 but typically between 120 and 200. It is a ground nester but will often use other odd locations such as abandoned mammal holes, areas beneath patio stones, piles of compost, between piles of wood, within very long grass, underneath decks and roof beams, and inside attics.

    For the most part, a person will rarely experience a Bumble Bee’s sting, because they are by nature relatively docile. If their nest is threatened, however, they will be extremely aggressive and are capable of stinging multiple times, since their stinger is not barbed and does not remain in the victim’s skin. Its sting is usually regarded as less painful than the Honey Bee’s but more painful than a wasp’s.


    Carpenter Bee

    Closely resembling the Bumblebee, this species has a fat body, its hair and thorax are covered in hair and has a shiny hairless abdomen. Carpenter bees are oval in shape and are about 1” long, with dark bluish-black in colour.

    The Carpenter Bee is so named because it is the pest that is known for neatly boring
    into the wood, sometimes in places within homes that can cause structural damage. A carpenter bee has mandibles and forelegs they can use to chew into any of the following: 

    • wooden support beams
    • decks
    • telephone poles
    • wooden furniture
    • fences and other structures


    It’s relatively easy to identify a Carpenter Bee’s nest, as there will be bits of chewed
    Wood (called ‘frass’) outside the hole that has been tunnelled by the female building her nest. These bees are solitary insects, in that their nests are individually constructed. 

    The Carpenter Bee is typically not aggressive, and only the female can sting. If she feels that her nest is threatened, she will attack; however, she rarely does. The males, on the other hand, do not have stingers but assume a more aggressive posture. If they feel there is a threat to the nest, they will ‘dive-bomb’ potential threats, which is usually enough to move the perceived invader away.

    Overall, their contribution to pollination outweighs any possibility of structural damage to a home. Not only do they collect pollen in a similar fashion to Bumblebees and Honey Bees (having very hairy bodies and pollen-collecting baskets on their hind legs), but they are actually known to ‘steal’ nectar from Blueberry Bees. 

    They occasionally do this when they find a flower into which they can’t fit, such as those found on blueberries. At that point, they ‘chew’ their way into the flower and sip the nectar before the Blueberry Bees have a chance to get at it. In instances such as this, the Carpenter Bee is stealing without providing a natural benefit.

    Carpenter Bee

    Honey Bee

    One of the single most common types of bee, this species is a social bee that is found around the world. There are over 40 types of Honey Bees, and they all share key characteristics: they produce wax for their honeycomb, live in a colony with sometimes as many as 80,000 bees, have a queen, and produce honey. 

    Unlike most bee species, a colony of Honey Bees can often survive for years, as they endure the winter months by generating heat in the centre of a cluster, where they take care of their queen and the developing larvae by feeding them ‘bee bread’. 

    Physically, the Honey Bee has a thin, golden-brown body that is oval in shape and is ½’’ long. They are not furry or hairy-looking like Bumblebees or Carpenter Bees, are smaller than the Bumblebee and have lengthier and narrower structures. They are often mistaken for wasps (Yellow Jackets) because their body structure is somewhat similar; sometimes they get the blame for a sting that is not theirs.

    Though they closely resemble wasps, there are some key differences between the two insects. While not nearly as hairy as Bumblebees or Carpenter Bees, Honey Bees do possess some hairs, which are used as part of their pollination process. Wasps have no hair, as their bodies are protected by tough armour. 

    The Honey Bee also possesses a barbed stinger, which means that it can sting only once; any sting results in the stinger’s remaining in the skin of the victim and the Honey Bee’s innards being ripped out. 

    The wasp’s stinger is not barbed, which means that it can attack and sting multiple times. Honey Bees feed on pollen while wasps feed on nectar, and, finally, the wasp is far more aggressive than the Honey Bee, which is for the most part docile. The wasp is, in a sense, made for combat.

    As a social bee, the Honey Bee’s nesting habits are mostly centred in a beehive or cavities above ground. Generally speaking, however, Honey Bees can build a hive just about anywhere, and the sizes of their hives can vary greatly. Trees are the most common places to find Honey Bee nests, but they can also be found in places like chimneys or attics. 

    For the most part, Honey Bees are not an aggressive species and are far more interested in the flowers around which they’re darting back and forth than they are in giving a person a good sting. They will, however, attack in full force if they feel that their hive is threatened and will sometimes pursue a perceived invader for miles. They can sting but rarely do.

    The Honey Bee is an elite pollinator, perhaps the top one in the world. It is known to be responsible for the pollination of more than 100 different crops in the United States alone. The Honey Bees that are observed buzzing around flowers are female bees, and one can always tell if a Honey Bee has been to a flower by looking at its hind parts. Their back legs and their pollen-carrying baskets are typically covered with and full of yellow pollen.

    Honey Bee

    Leafcutter Bee

    If a neat crescent has been discovered in the leaf of a rosebush, it’s a good bet that it was the work of one of these solitary bees.

    This species of bee is small, measuring anywhere from 7-18 millimetres in length. It is dark-coloured, typically looking as though it were made from iron or some other light metal. They have white hairs on their thorax and females additionally have them on the bottom of their abdomen, and they have very large jaws (used for leaf-cutting) for their body size. They have a broad head and body. 

    Leafcutter Bees get their name from their habit of neatly cutting away parts of leaves and using them to line their nests, which are typically constructed in decaying wood and in the insulated panels of buildings, timeworn trees and logs, and wood shingle siding. The pieces of leaves that they cut away are used for constructing their egg cells and closing up their nest cavities.

    Leafcutters are important pollinators of many wildflowers in addition to various fruits and vegetables. They are very fast and carry pollen on their abdomens. They have the capability to sting but rarely do and ordinarily do not aggressively defend their nests.

    Leafcutter Bee

    Long-Horned Bee

    A bee with a very distinct characteristic, the Long-Horned Bee is so named because of the oversized antennae that are sported by the males. These antennae give the males a heightened sense of smell and taste, and they are also used to attract females, which have white tails. 

    After mating, the females do all of the work regarding nest construction and pollen collection, both of which are for the development of larvae.

    The Long-Horned is a solitary bee, as it nests individually in various types of ground terrain (usually in high sand or clay) and sometimes even on cliff faces. It is approximately 11-18 millimetres long and hairy, ranging in colour from red to grey. This is not an aggressive species of bee and does not sting.

    Mason Bee

    Getting their name from their habit of sealing the entrance to their nest with mud, the Mason Bee is a ground-dwelling and solitary bee that nests individually. It is approximately 7-18 millimetres in length, though some can be as small as three millimetres. Its colours are often metallic-like blue, green, or grey. 

    Mason Bees are related to Leafcutter Bees, but the primary difference between them is that whereas the latter prefers to make its nest in rotting wood, wood shingle siding and in the insulated panels of buildings, the former prefers nesting in crevices in an old mortar or hollowed-out stems and twigs.

    There is little threat of being stung by a Mason Bee, as it is not an aggressive species. Only females have stingers, and they will typically only sting if they are roughly handled.

    A small, fast-flying bee, the Mason Bee is a productive pollinator of spring-flowering fruit and nut trees, but they are generalists; they will visit a wide variety of plants and flowers and will often visit those nearest the nest. Their pollen collection is carried out with hairs on the underside of their abdomen, as they lack the pollen-collecting baskets typical of other bee species.

    Mason Bee

    Plasterer Bee

    This solitary species of bee is also a ground-dweller that gets its name from its habit of lining the walls of its nest with a translucent substance from a gland in its abdomen that dries into a cellophane-like material. They are about 10-18 millimetres in length (slightly larger than a Sweat Bee), quite hairy, and are typically black with pale or whitish bands around their thorax.

    They are known to nest in gardens, where one will typically see small mounds of dirt adjacent to holes in the ground. While they are primarily insects that burrow underground, they have also been known to make their nests in cracks in stone and bricks. 

    Their primary purpose in collecting pollen and nectar is as the main food source for their grubs (larvae) so that their species can continue to exist. Their most beneficial function is their extensive pollination of a number of native plants and spring crops.

    When handled, this bee emits a citrus-like odour, which is a pheromone produced in the head of the bee. It is believed that this pleasing smell may help them to find nesting sites, food sources, or even potential mates. 

    The risk of stings is very minimal from a Plasterer Bee. 

    Sweat Bee

    A very small species, this bee is so-named for its attraction to human perspiration. If a person is sweating heavily during the summer months, it is not uncommon for him to be suddenly surrounded by a multitude of these tiny insects. There generally is absolutely no reason to fear, however, as only the females are capable of stinging and will only do so if pressed into the skin. They are not aggressive at all.

    Physically, they are very small (some as small as three millimetres in length, or about ¼ the size of a Honey Bee) and have thin, hairy bodies. They are oval-shaped and are dark-metallic coloured blue, green, or bronze. There are also some that may be green, red, or yellow.

    Sweat Bees are also solitary, ground-dwelling bees and prefer to make their nests by burrowing underground. Despite being solitary, groups of them will sometimes build their nests in clusters with telltale mounds of dirt at the openings. Their colonies are typically smaller than the hives established by honey bees. 

    There are over 1,000 species of Sweat Bees covering the United States, Canada, and Central America and are excellent flower pollinators that are sometimes active even into October and November. 

    They are typically generalist pollinators, as they will visit a wide variety of flowers and plants; however, because of their size, they are particularly attracted to small flowers like fall-blooming asters of the Southeast. In attempting to identify them, they can be difficult to see because of their small size and high speed.

    Sweat Bee

    Yellow-Faced Bee

    Named for their bright yellow faces (though some are white), this species of bee is native to the Hawaiian Islands, where over 60 species call them home. It is a small (no bigger than six millimetres), solitary bee with a thin body that, similar to most bees in that classification, build their nests in hollow stems, rock crevices, or burrows in the ground. 

    They are much more docile than they appear and rarely sting. Unlike most bee species, Yellow-Faced Bees carry pollen in their crop, rather than on a pouch attached to their hind legs or on their abdomen.

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