Bee identification is not always simple!
For one thing, different bee species can look similar to each other, but also to other insects which, for a variety of reasons, mimic particular bees.
So here are a few quick tips and features to look for (please note, a link to ID charts can be found at the bottom of the page) .
As stated, sometimes the differences between the bee species and bee families are quite subtle.
Humans can also tend to have a specific image of what bees should look like.......
.....often based on the striped and somewhat cuddly looking bumblebee.
In short, the image
that most commonly springs to mind when people think of bees, is often
something along the lines of this (actually a buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):
But remember that worldwide there are about 25,000 known species of bee – and probably there are more to be discovered. Bees are diverse in appearance.
How about this species below for an alternative image of a bee? Quite different from the fluffy little creature pictured above.
This is an Orchid Bee – found in Mexico.
I’m indebted to Sarah Hepting and Xplanta.com for permission to use the image.
So here are a few more challenges:
Is It Male Or Female?
Males can be difficult to distinguish from females (although males do not carry pollen).
Mimicry Or Similarities Between Different Insect Species
There are a number of carder bees and solitary bees which look very similar to wasps - including the 'yellow jackets' we are very familiar with.
Cuckoo bumblebees are parasitic, and easily mistaken for social species - or 'true bumblebees'. Yet the behavious of cuckoo bumblebees is obviously quite different from their target host - read more about cuckoo bumblebees.
Then of course there are flies. Below we have a couple of images of hoverfly species….
.....Which are fairly similar, at first glance, to the honey bee, Apis melifera.
Then again, some solitary bees could esily be mistaken for bumblebees. On examining these photographs you can see that the bumblebee Bombus pascuorum - (top)- is quite different from the solitary bee (bottom) – a tawny mining bee, But what if you only catch a fleeting glimpse of either of these bees when moving?
Certainly having seen these pictures, you will be in a better position to correctly identify them, but with limited experience, you could easily be confused.
A Few Bee Identification Tips
Here I’m going to share with you a few simple tips on how to identify bees.
1. Bees Have 2 Sets Of Wings
In other words, bees have four single wings - two on each side of the body.
Note that flies only have one pair of wings – one wing on each side of the body.
Wasps also have two sets of wings.
2. Behaviour/Body Movements
The way an insect moves can help you identify a species. For example, many flies – including the hover fly Volucella Bombylans, (which can be mistaken for a bumblebee, along with some other hover fly species), often engages in an activity that makes it quite easy to spot. It extends its fore legs out in front of itself and appears to be briskly rubbing its feet together. This behaviour is commonly seen in houseflies, as a further example.
Hover flies can easily be mistaken for honey bees, as seen from the photographs above, but although bees can hover for a while, with hover flies, you may witness a distinctive hesitating – then darting behaviour....although some solitary bees may 'dart' too, such as the Hairy Footed Flower Bee! So....
3. Check The Eyes!
Take a good look at the eyes! The eyes of hover flies are comparatively large - as can be seen from the image above - and note the shape.
4. Pollen Carrying
A number of insects may be seen gathering nectar, including the bee fly, which is a fly, not a bee! Bees carry pollen in different ways – some solitary bees carry it on the underside of the abdomen. However, if you spot an insect with pollen baskets on the hind legs, these are bees. ……..but note that male bees don’t collect pollen, and neither do cuckoo bees - so at least you'll know that what you are seeing is a female 'true' bumblebee.
Well, I told you it wasn’t so simple!
are of course other differences that can help in the process of bee
identification, but these need careful observation (such as the colour of hairs on hind legs and face).
One of the best things you can do if you are really interested in bee identification, is to get a book. Charts are handy as a back up and to take with you out in the field, but a decent book will provide you with additional tips and hints – and there is too much information to convey here!
You will find free ID charts here
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