Bee Identification

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 experts who disagreed as to the identification of a bumble bee species - so you see, even experts don't always find it easy!

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).


Coastal leafcutter bee foraging on a pink restharrow flower growing from the sand.Coastal leafcutter bee on restaharrow.

Bee Identification Tips


Here are a few tips on how to identify bees versus other insects:


1. Check The Eyes and Antennae


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 sideBees 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.

image of a bee on a pink rose with arrows pointing to the eyes at the side and top of headOn this bee you can clearly see the eyes face out from the sides of the head.


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.    

image of a hover fly, with arrows pointing to the fact that the eyes are at the front of the head and are forward-facing.On this hover fly, the eyes are at the front of the head and are forward-facing.

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.


2. Bees Have 2 Sets Of Wings


Honey bee and hoverfly on pink Japanese anemone flower.On the left - a honey bee, and on the right, a hoverfly foraging together on Japanese anemone.


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.


3. Grooming Movements


The way an insect grooms can sometimes help you identify whether a species is a fly rather than a bee.  Bees do groom, 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.


4. Pollen Carrying

Bumble bee foraging on rose.Bumble bee foraging on rose.

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.

Distinguishing between different types of bees

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.

Body shape

A gingery Common carder bumble bee in flight.Common carder bumble bee

Generally, rounder, chubby, furry 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.

Pollen carrying

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.

honey bee on pink rose with hind legs carrying waxy-looking creamy colored pollen.Honey bee with full pollen baskets


Some solitary species collect pollen on long hairs, especially on the rear legs, but the pollen has a more loose, powdery appearance. 

Orange legged furrow bee female with very hairy back legs covered in pollen.Orange legged furrow bee female with very hairy legs covered in pollen.

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.

Photograph of a leafcutter bee with visible pollen collected on 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.  


Bee Mimics And Other Challenges

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.

Very small black bee - a Large headed resin bee, perched on the end of a finger.  If noticed, it could be mistaken for a small black fly.Heriades truncorum - Large headed resin bee

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.

Nomada goodeniana - Gooden's nomad bee - it's waspish appearance with yellow and black body markings mean it is easily mistaken in its identify.


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.

a green orchid bee






Conclusion


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! 

If you are seeking bee id charts which you can download for free, then go to my page Bee ID charts.















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