With over 4,000 species of native bees in North America, many people understandably have trouble identifying one from the other. What’s more, curious naturalists often mistake other types of pollinators for bees. It’s easy to confuse a fly or a wasp with a bee because they all share similar coloring and markings. So, how can you tell one from the other? Read on to find out how you can become better at identifying bees and other pollinators.
Is it a bee or a fly?
Flies are often confused for bees because many of them have the same coloring. Striped yellow and black flies have evolved to look like bees or wasps to protect themselves from predators. They are also mistaken for bees because many people do not realize that flies are pollinators that visit flowers just as bees do. That said, there are some simple tricks for differentiating a fly from a real bee.
Flies have large, round eyes that crowd their heads, while most bees have more shapely eyes.
Flies have short, stubby antennae when compared with bees.
Flies tend to have less fuzz than bees.
Is it a bee or a wasp?
Wasps too are pollinators that are easily mistaken for bees. Although wasps have a nasty reputation, many or them are docile, beneficial insects that should be welcome in our gardens. You can learn to identify them by a few key tricks.
Wasps tend to be more brightly colored than bees and will have starker markings.
Wasps tend to have longer and often thinner antennae than bees do.
Wasps are very sleek and typically do not have much hair.
Wasps have slender waists and look more angular when compared with the roundness of most bees.
What kind of bee is it?
Now that we know how to distinguish a bee from a fly or wasp, how can we determine what type of bee it is? Unfortunately, this is not always an easy task, but there are some common types of bees that you can learn to recognize more easily.
Bumblebees are probably the most recognizable species of bee other than honeybees. They are large, fuzzy, and often have stark black and yellow coloring sometimes with accents or white or orange. Like honeybees, bumblebees live in colonies and carry pollen on their legs (pollen pants)! Bumblebees live in colonies, like honeybees, and tend to live underground or in abandoned bird houses or sometimes compost heaps. Read more about the difference between honeybees and bumblebees in my post Comparing Bumblebees With Honeybees.
Carpenter bees often look similar to honeybees because they are close in size, but carpenter bees tend to be less fuzzy. Some species are all black and they sometimes have colorful wings when the light hits them the right way. Carpenter bees also live inside of tunnels they drill into dead wood.
Leafcutter bees are named for their habit of creating their nests with bits of leaves. If you don’t catch them in the act, you may be able to identify them by their unique way of collecting pollen: they pack it onto the underside of their abdomens instead of on their legs!
Squash bees look really similar to honeybees. They have similar coloring, but are slightly larger and with longer antennae. You will often see them in squash blossoms in the early morning, when they are most active, because this is the only type of pollen they collect.
Metallic green bees
If you aren’t familiar with them, you might assume that a metallic green bee is a fly because of their unusual coloring, but these jewel-bright pollinators are actually bees. Look for them on flowers in the sunflower family during the spring and summer.
Ready to Learn More?
Good news! Now you can learn about the different types of bees and other pollinators with the new educational game: Pollinator Popcorn. It’s a trivia game for kids and adults who want to go beyond the world of honeybees and learn more about the incredible diversity of our pollinators. The game also features identification cards that challenge players to identify which type of pollinator is in the photo. Is it a bee fly or wasp? Click here to find out more about the game.
Ready to play? Click here to try out the game for FREE with this modified online version. Post your scores in the comments!