Bee Identification

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

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 quick tips and features to look for (please note, a link to free ID charts can be found at the bottom of the page).

A Few Bee Identification Tips

Coastal leafcutter bee.Coastal leafcutter bee on restaharrow.

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.

On this bee you can clearly see the eyes face out from the sides of the head.On 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.    

On this hover fly, 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 on sneezeweed.Honey bee on sneezeweed.

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.  

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.

Bees do groom, but they are more likely to be seen cleaning their backs, limbs and antennae in a kind of 'wiping' fashion.  

4. Pollen Carrying

If an insect is visibly carrying pollen, it's a bee.If an insect is visibly carrying pollen, it's a bee.

If an insect is visibly carrying pollen, it's a bee.  However, even if you can't see the pollen, this does not necessarily mean that it's not a bee, because not all bees collect and carry pollen (for example, cuckoo species do not).  Also, you may see a bee prior to gathering pollen.

Also, please note that bees carry pollen in different ways, and not always in very visible pollen baskets.  

Some solitary bees carry pollen on the underside of the abdomen or predominantly on hairs on the back legs; bumble bees and honey bees carry pollen in visible pollen baskets (corbicula) on the hind legs.

Below, notice the way this honey bee is carrying pollen: the appearance of the pollen on the rear legs is smooth, compacted and firm.

On the images of the solitary species below, the rear legs are holding pollen, but the pollen has a more loose appearance. 

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.  

Bee Mimics And Other Challenges

Common carder bumble bee.Above: Common carder bumble 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.

Distinguishing between different types of bee species

Various solitary bees can be mistaken for the honey bee, and there are solitary species that look a little like bumble bees.

For example, below is a photograph of a solitary bee species, the hairy footed flower bee.  At first glance, it could easily be mistaken for a small worker bumble bee.

Anthophora plumipes - Hairy footed flower bee (female)

Familiarity with different species and bee anatomy can help with identification

Ultimately, familiarising yourself with the appearance and anatomy of bees will help you tell bees apart from other species, and from each other - that's beyond the scope of this page.

This bumble bee is the common perception of what all or most bees look like - but there is huge variety.Above: This bumble bee is the common perception of what all or most bees look like - but there is huge variety.

Also, it will help to broaden your view of what you think a bee must always look like, which is often based on the appearance of just one type: the bumble bee,  yet 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.

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.Nomada goodeniana - Gooden's nomad bee.

Anthidium manicatum - Wool carder beeAnthidium manicatum - Wool carder bee

Below is a picture of an Orchid Bee found in Mexico. 

I’m indebted to Sarah Hepting and for permission to use the image.

There are of course a range of other characteristics 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! 

If you are seeking bee id charts which you can download for free, then you will find free ID charts here

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