IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Posted May 24, 2017
by Hilary

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

For most people, the word “bee” conjures an image of a honey bee. Many people do not realize there are other kinds of bees. Yet, there are over 4,000 different species of native bees in North America and all of them are pollinators vital to our ecosystem. Once you become aware of their existence, it’s fun to look for them. I love to search in neighborhood gardens and wild spaces for different bees in the spring when they are most active and I often document my finds with photos. However, bees are not the only buzzing pollinators who visit flowers and many of these insects wear the honey bees’ famous stripes. So, how can you tell if you are seeing a honey bee, native bee, wasp or fly? Read on for a layman’s guide to pollinator identification.

Fly or Bee?

Flies are the easiest to distinguish from bees so we will start with them, but keep in mind there are always exceptions to these rules. All I can do is provide some general guidelines. You might be surprised to know that flies visit flowers at all, but many fly species are important pollinators. In fact, fossil records show that flies were among the very first pollinators over 150 million years ago.

Syrphidae_poster

  • The first thing I check for when I want to know what kind of insect I am looking at is the eyes. Bees have shapely oval eyes on the sides of their heads, while flies have large, round, almost bulging eyes. Fly eyes are more oriented towards the front and tend to make up the majority of the head.
  • The second thing to look for is the wings. A bee has two sets of wings, while a fly only has one. A bee will fold her wings over each other across her back, while a fly holds its wings splayed outward.
  • Another feature to check for is hair. Bees tend to have much more hair, they are often downright fuzzy, while flies have only sparse hair and it is usually coarser. Although some flies have quite a lot of hair.
  • Flies will have short, stubby antennae that aren’t always visible, while bees have long, thin antennae.
  • Flies do not collect or carry pollen on their legs or under their abdomens like bees do.

It is best not to rely on colors or markings because many flies intentionally mimic bee coloration. They are called bee mimics. Mimicry is a survival strategy designed to trick predators into thinking that they can sting when they cannot. Take a look at the images above. All of these are flies that have evolved to look like bees, but they all have the large fly-eyes, splayed wings and stubby antennae I described.

Wasp or Bee?

Wasps are more closely related to bees and the differences between them are more subtle. As with flies, there are always exceptions to the very general guidelines listed below. Despite their bad reputation, wasps are beneficial insects. In their adult form they are pollinators who feed on nectar, but they also hunt other insects to feed their young. They prey on spiders, caterpillars, ants, bees and flies.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

  • Wasps are shaped differently than bees. They are long, lean and narrow. Often wasps have very thin waists, while bees tend to be rounder. Although there are some species of bees whose thin bodies are very wasp-like.
  • Both wasps and bees have 4 wings, but wasp wings are long and slender while bee wings are shorter and more shapely.
  • There is some cross-over in coloration with wasps and bees, but in general wasp tend to have starker patterns and bolder colors. They are often bright colors like red or yellow and some have more intricate markings such as v-shaped stripes or dots and stripes together. Bees tend to have more muted color palettes and most are limited to stripes when it comes to markings. Although there are metallic green or blue bees, brightly colored bumble bees and cuckoo bees especially have some very wasp-like markings and coloration.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Some wasp nest may confuse people because they have a similar pattern to that of honey bee comb, but wasp nests are usually very small when compared to honey bee nests, about the size of an open hand at their biggest. They are also grey instead of the white, yellow or brown of a honeycomb. Wasp nests also have fewer inhabitants than a beehive.

What Kind of Bee Is It?

With over 4,000 species of bees in North America identification is extremely tricky! With some careful observation, you can generally make a guess as to the type of bee you have found, but even experts can be mistaken. I won’t claim to be an expert at this, but I have a lot of fun practicing! Here is a general guide to some of the most commonly seen bees.

Honey Bees vs. Native Bees. 

Honey bees are unique among bees because they live in large colonies and function as a superorganism where as most native bees are solitary. Some solitary bees are gregarious and like to nest next to each other– a bee neighborhood! While others live in small, typically annual colonies, like bumble bees.

I can usually spot a native bee by the way she flies in contrast to a honey bee. Honey bees are slow, almost lazy fliers, while native bees zip by so quickly you can barely catch a glimpse of them. Native bees also move much more quickly on flowers which makes it even more challenging to identify them.

Another in-flight identification trick is that honey bees fly with their back legs dangling down while natives tend to tuck them up.

Honey bees carry pollen in balls on their back legs (pollen pants!), while other bees use this same method for pollen transport it is one way to narrow down your options when attempting to I.D. a bee.

Honey bees come in a range of colors from golden blonde to almost entirely black. Coloration alone should not be relied on for honey bee identification.

Honey bees will forage year-round if weather allows, while most other bee species are only found in spring and summer.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY? IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Bumble Bees

Bumble bees are probably the most recognizable native bee, but other species of similar size are often confused for bumble bees. So, how can you tell if you are looking at a bumble bee?

Bumbles have robust, fuzzy bodies and range from medium size (just a bit larger than a honey bee) to very large (about the size of a man’s thumb).

They are largely black and often have contrasting stripes or patches of yellow, white or orange.

They carry pollen in large balls on their back legs, like honey bees do.

Bumble bees have annual colonies and can be found during the flowering season, spring through fall.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Carpenter Bees

Carpenter bees can be as large as a bumble bee, but the females are not as fuzzy.

Females are usually black and have a metallic shine.

Males are usually orange or will have some orange or yellow on them.

Carpenter bees make their nests by drilling shallow tunnels in dead wood.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Squash Bees

Male Squash bees like to hang out in squash blossoms and sometimes sleep in them with several other males.

They are medium sized and robust in shape with light brown and black coloration.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Long-horned Bees

Named for the showy long antennae of the males, females will have antennae of a more modest length. Males use their long antennae to stroke females during mating.

They are medium in size and of a robust shape.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY? IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Sweat Bees

Sweat bees are usually tiny and are often overlooked because of their size.

They are usually dark in color, but some are a bright metallic green!

They have slender bodies.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Leafcutter Bees

Leafcutter bees chew off parts of leaves to use for nesting materials.

Unlike other bees, they store pollen under their abdomens where there is a thick mat of hair, called a scopa.

Their abdomens are short and triangular and often tipped upward.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Mason Bees

Mason bees are large to small with stout bodies and distinctly round heads.

Males sometimes have a dense mustache.

They are usually a dark, metallic blue but can also be green

They nest in existing wood cavities and holes.

Pollen is carried in a dense scopa.

IS IT A BEE, WASP OR FLY?

Cactus Bees, Sunflower Bees or Mallow Bees

These specialists prefer just one type of flower and different varieties are named for that preference.

They are stout and range from small to large with rounded heads.

They carry pollen on their bushy back legs, giving the appearance of pollen leg warmers.

Pollinator Popcorn Educational Game

Want Improve Your Skills?

Good news! I created a new educational game that will teach you how to recognize different pollinators. It’s called Pollinator Popcorn. Part trivia, part identification, the game challenges players to identify images of different pollinators and tests players’ knowledge of these species. Find out more by clicking here.

6 Comments

  1. Li

    I love this! Thank you for the ID info!

    Reply
  2. Mari J

    Thanks for the good info Hilary. As Beekeeper’s we should have an understanding and appreciation for the natives. So much yo learn!! Great pics!

    Reply
  3. Connie Prichard

    I have a photo of a bee, I think, that was working our white clover. Is there a way to show my pic to you for identification??

    Reply
  4. Brian Breczinski

    As I’ve observed more insects visiting my garden, I’ve come to realize they aren’t always what I initially assumed. Thanks for the guide, it helped me with the bee (eyes and pollen on the back legs) that I photographed earlier this month.

    Reply
  5. Sylvia

    I have 20-30 bees walking around my property they don’t fly if you go near them with a twig they will climb on and hop off they have wings but don’t use them they have orange heads what are they

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Email me a picture!

      Reply

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My name is Hilary Kearney. I’m the author of the book, “Queenspotting” and founder of the urban beekeeping business Girl Next Door Honey in San Diego, California. I’m an artist turned beekeeper on a mission to help new beekeepers succeed and educate the public about the magic of bees!

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