Updated: 2nd March 2021
Bee identification is not always simple, and it does take practice. I recall an interesting discussion years ago between two groups of bee experts who disagreed as to the identification of a bumble bee species - so you see, even experts don't always find it easy! Additionally, some species can only be accurately identified with the aid of a microscope.
For the non-expert, not only do some of the different bee species look very similar to each other, but they may also be confused with other insects, some of which, for a variety of reasons, even mimic particular bees.
So here are a few tips and features to look for (please note, a link to free ID charts can be found at the bottom of the page), and in particular, how to identify bees versus other insects.
Hover flies are often mistaken for bees and vice versa, so here, I'll draw attention to some key physical characteristics of both with regard to eyes and antennae.
Bees have large eyes to the side of the face, resembling a kind of 'eclipse shape' when viewed from the side. Bees actually have 5 eyes, although you will more than likely only be able to see 2 of them (the other 3 are very small and on the top of the head).
Bees also have visible, long antennae and you can clearly see them on the image below.
Various hover fly species can be mistaken for bees, but look closely and you'll notice that the eyes are forward facing and are at the front of the head.
The eyes of hover flies are comparatively
large and often look as though they comprise the whole head. Any visible antennae are short.
You can also see that the fly above has only two very, very small antennae poking out at the front of the head in the middle. The parasite, bee-fly is another insect that is often mistaken for a bee.
In other words, bees have four single wings - two on each side of the body. However, all four wings may or may not be instantly visible, especially when the bee is resting.
Flies only have one set of wings, but some species are commonly mistaken for bees (and vice versa).
However, please note that wasps also have two sets of wings, and note that bees and wasps are related.
The way an insect grooms can sometimes help you identify whether a species is a fly rather than a bee. Bees do groom using their legs. but they are more likely to be seen cleaning their backs, limbs and antennae in a kind of 'wiping' fashion.
Many flies extend their fore legs out in front and
appear to be briskly rubbing their feet together, perhaps even for a few seconds at a time. This behaviour is
also commonly seen in house flies, as a further example.
If an insect is visibly carrying pollen, instantly you can be sure it is a bee.
However, if you cannot see pollen, you should continue to check other physical features, in case it is simply not carrying pollen for another reason. The bee may be collecting other things, such as nest materials, or be at the beginning of a foraging trip with hardly any pollen yet visible. Cuckoo species and male bees do not collect pollen.
This requires a great deal of study in order to identify species accurately, but you can at least learn to have a good idea of the likely species or type by looking at features such as pollen carrying method.
To go deeper, it is best to purchase a book, take photographs from different angles, and take the time to become more familiar with species. Whilst I think this is an admirable pass time, I also believe it should never detract us from simply enjoying the presence of bees, and from merely observing it.
Generally, rounder, chubby, furry/hairy bees are bumble bees.
They come in different shades of ginger, brown and black, often with white, red, peach or yellow bands on the abdomen or tail, and sometimes on the thorax.
Slender bees could be honey bees or a solitary species.
Bumble bees and honey bees collect and carry pollen on their rear legs, in compact, waxy-looking clumps. Below is a honey bee with corbiculae (pollen baskets) full of pollen: the appearance of the pollen on the rear legs is smooth, compacted and firm. A similar appearance for the pollen can be seen in the image of the bumble bee further up the page.
Some solitary species collect pollen on long hairs, especially on the rear legs, but the pollen has a more loose, powdery appearance.
For other solitary bee species, a pollen brush on the underside of the abdomen is important for collecting pollen.
Below are images of a leafcutter bee, revealing the pollen she is carrying on the underside of the abdomen.
However, male bees and cuckoo bee species (including female cuckoo bumble bees) don't gather pollen, and so they won't be carrying pollen on their hind legs.
It will help if you can broaden your view of what you think a bee should look like, because there is much variety.
Some solitary bees are very tiny, and mostly go about their business unnoticed by humans. Many look like small flies. such as Heriades truncorum - the Large headed resin bee pictured below.
Then there are a number of solitary bees that look similar to wasps, such as various nomad bee species, or even the wool carder.
Below is a picture of a Gooden's nomad bee.
A number of insects may be seen gathering nectar, including the bee fly, which is a fly, not a bee! Below is a video of a "bee fly" - often mistaken for a common carder bumble bee.
Below is a picture of an Orchid Bee found in Mexico.
I’m indebted to Sarah Hepting and Xplanta.com for permission to use the image.
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!
If you are seeking bee id charts which you can download for free, then go to my page Bee ID charts.
Alternatively, books you may wish to consider are:
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