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Bee and Wasp Identification: A Quick and Easy Guide (With Photos)

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bee-and-wasp-identification

Bee and Wasp Identification: A Quick and Easy Guide to Common Species

Anyone who spends any time at all outside is sure to encounter the occasional bee. For many people, a bee is a bee—it simply does not matter what kind, or species, the bee might be. This guide is for the more curious type, the gardeners, students, and naturalists who know that there is a wide world of bees and wasps out there, with a breathtaking range of colors, habits, forms, and economic relevance.

This quick and easy guide to common bees and wasps is meant to be enjoyed for its own sake, but it's our hope that you also learn something. If you are trying to identify a bee that you found (or that found you!), chances are good that you will find it in this guide, and learn something about your bee's life.

For the people who could not care less about bees, wasps, or other insects, please read on anyway! There's a wild (and often weird) world of bees waiting for you to take notice.

The common honeybee, Apis mellifera

The common honeybee, Apis mellifera

The Common Honeybee

Almost everyone is familiar with the honeybee, or at least they should be, because this insect is responsible for much of the food we eat. Without the pollination provided by honeybees, many crops would fail, flowers would die, and the world would quickly become a very difficult place in which to live. It may feel strange to go through our day-to-day lives with a constant prayer of thanks on our lips for the humble honeybee, but that wold be entirely appropriate.

Sad to say, honeybees have been the subject of declining numbers thanks to something called "colony collapse disorder." This affliction does exactly what its name suggests, and the result is fewer healthy honeybees to pollinate our cabbage, cut flowers, and everything in between. No one is sure how a complicated process like CCD works, but it's likely a combination of climate change, pesticides, predators, and pathogens.

Please welcome honeybees into your yard (and into your home as well, if that's the kind of naturalist you are). These priceless little insects should be a welcome sight in your garden or yard. Please consider planting nectar flowers to help these critically important little insects survive and thrive.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Apis mellifera
  • Range: worldwide
  • Sting: painful, but not excruciating. The stinger stays in the wound, and the bees dies shortly after the encounter. You, on the other hand, will be fine in an hour or two, assuming you're not allergic.
  • Is it a pest?: no, quite the opposite.
  • What to do: encourage honeybees by planting nectar species.
bee-and-wasp-identification

Carpenter Bees

These big, friendly bees look a lot like bumblebees, but they are very different in every way that matters. You can tell the two kinds apart by a quick look at the abdomen (the end zone of the bee, home to stinger): if it is furry, it's a bumblebee, but if it's bare and shiny, then it's a carpenter bee. In other words, if it has a furry butt, it's not a carpenter bee.

Carpenter bees are big and a bit clumsy, like bumblebees, but there the similarity ends. Carpenter bees earn their name by having a very particular set of skills, skills that can make them a nightmare for the eaves around your house. Carpenter bees have evolved the ability to cut through solid wood with their mandibles in order to make a nest, and where they will raise their brood in little cells separated by wood shaving. The result is a perfect little round hole, which you may notice if you look up at the wood trim on the outside of your house. If the nest is recent, you may also see a little pile of sawdust directly under the hole.

It must be said that most carpenter bees do not attack your house, and they have lived for eons by drilling into trees to make their nest. It is also true that the little holes they make in home to create their own don't really damage anything, so before you go after them consider adopting a "live and let live" policy.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many species in the genus Xylocopa
  • Range: worldwide
  • Sting: Most of the carpenter bees you will see in your garden are males and do not have a stinger. Females can sting but they are non-aggressive.
  • Is it a pest?: no, as long as you don't mind the occasional perfectly round hole in your eaves
  • What to do: marvel at the amazing evolutionary adaptations of these interesting insects
bee-and-wasp-identification

Bumblebees

Who doesn't love a bumblebee? These big furry bees are nearly as common a sight as honeybees in a typical garden, although they're typically found as solitary individuals, rather than the more gregarious honeybee, which often come from the same hive to gather nectar in a flower patch. Bumblebees live in small hives of a few dozen individuals, typically in the ground, and they don't have the same sophisticated GPS skills as the honeybee—so take it all around, bumblebees really are the honeybee's clumsy, simple-but-endearing cousin.

You can identify the typical bumblebee by its furry body and large size. About the only common insect it can be confused with is the carpenter bee, which looks quite similar but has no fur on its abdomen. Some bumblebees have orange fur in spots, but this unusual. They are almost always yellow and black.

There are several species, and some are truly huge, but none of them are aggressive or pack much of a sting.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many species in the genus Bombus
  • Range: worldwide
  • Sting: Bumblebees can sting, but it rarely happens and is fairly mild
  • Is it a pest?: No
  • What to do: Smile at them and know that they mean no harm.
bee-and-wasp-identification

Metallic Green Sweat Bees

Those of us who look a little closer at the bees and wasps buzzing around flowers on sunny days will have noticed some bees that are marked with bright metallic greens and golds. These are usually part of a large group of insects known as "metallic green sweat bees." The metallic green part is obvious, but the sweat bit comes from these bees' tendency to land on your arm and drink up little beads of sweat; they crave the salts and other compounds you are producing. Their activities tend to tickle a bit, and if you brush at what's tickling you, you can get stung. Only the females sting, though, and their sting is more amusing than truly painful – kind of like a "nice try" at a real bee sting. Still, if you are allergic to bee stings, it's best to take the event seriously.

There are many kinds of sweat bees, with a range throughout the Western Hemisphere. They are not all truly metallic, but they are all small, and they all love sweat!

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many species in the genus Agapostemon
  • Range: Throughout the Western Hemisphere
  • Sting: Most of the metallic green sweat bees you will see in your garden are males and do not have a stinger. Females can sting but they are non-aggressive.
  • Is it a pest?: No.
  • What to do: marvel at the amazing evolutionary adaptations of these interesting insects
bee-and-wasp-identification

Digger Bees

Although they are not as often seen as honeybees or bumblebees, digger bees are there if you take the time to look. They are large, good-looking bees, furry-bodied, with an abdomen bearing stripes that are sometimes iridescent blue or green. Most are in the tribe Anthophorini, but the term "digger bee" is sometimes extended to other bees with similar habits.

As you may have guessed, these bees can dig. Their bodies are adapted for the purpose, with strong front legs for burrowing through all kinds of soil. All members of the Anthophorini tribe are solitary, which simply means they do not live in hives, but have their individual burrows (there are many other bees and wasps, many of them in this guide, that lead the same kind of single life). But while other solitary wasps and bees often hunt prey for their young, digger bees simply bring them a mixture of pollen and nectar and feed it to the larvae as they develop.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many species in the tribe Anthophorini
  • Range: worldwide
  • Sting: Digger bees can sting, but they don't guard their nest or attack like yellowjackets or haneybees do.
  • Is it a pest?: No.
  • What to do: Get some photos! These are beautiful insects and finding one is a moment worth remembering.
bee-and-wasp-identification

Wool Carder Bees

Wool carder bees belong to the same large group as leafcutter bees (below), a group that takes a variety of creative approaches to building their nests. Carder bees are solitary bees, meaning they build single-bee-family homes rather than live in huge multifamily nests like honeybees and some others. When building their nest, they use plant fibers that they scrape, or "card," using specially adapted front legs. These legs have spines that work in the same way a person carding wool does, hence the common name.

These bees also have some pretty remarkable personal tendencies, mainly rampantly aggressive behavior in guarding their own personal nectar plant. The males patrol their chosen plant, spending all their time chasing away any other insect of any kind, large or small. Sometimes they engage in wrestling matches on the ground. It's basically the bee version of "Get off my lawn!"

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many species in the family Megachilidae
  • Range: worldwide
  • Sting: Male carder bees do not sting, but they are plenty aggressive towards other insects
  • Is it a pest?: No.
  • What to do: Not much! But they are fun to watch as they constantly battle the world.

"Male wool carder bees will fiercely guard a patch of flowers for their female suitors and chase, head-butt and wrestle any other insect which dares to enter their territory."

— bumblebeeconservation.org/woolcarderbee

bee-and-wasp-identification

Leafcutter Bees

These very cool bees have developed a behavior that truly sets them apart from the pack: while others make wax or scoop up mud to build their nests, leafcutters, you guessed it, build theirs by cutting up leaves.

If you have ever noticed that some leaves in your backyard have perfect little circles cut out around the edges, then you have noticed the work of these bees. They use their mandibles like scissors to cut out the piece they want, and then truck it back to the nest to construct their nest. The tree isn't really hurt by this activity (as opposed to leafcutter ants, which can and do kill entire trees in much the same way), and the bee obtains building material for her construction project.

The awesome video below shows how it's done.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many species in the genus Megachile
  • Range: Worldwide
  • Sting: These bees do not sting
  • Is it a pest?: No, unless you're fanatical about uniform leaf margins
  • What to do: If you're lucky enough to come across leafcutter bees at work, take some videos. They make excellent Instagram posts.
bee-and-wasp-identification

Yellowjackets

When it comes to yellowjackets, identification is not really the issue—it's what to do about them once you encounter them. They are annoying enough, especially late in the summer when they fan out to feverishly gather up food to get the nest through the coming winter. It's then that you find them delving into the potato salad at your backyard picnic, or feeding on rotting ground-fall apples.

Yellowjackets are notoriously aggressive, especially if you are unfortunate enough to disturb their nest, easy enough to do since they typically live in unmarked holes in the ground. This can make a simple task like mowing the lawn an unexpected adventure. Once disturbed, yellowjackets swarm out and furiously attack anything that looks like the enemy. One wasp can sting multiple times, and they don't mess around—they land and sting in the same millisecond.

Yellowjacket stings are remarkably painful. They also last a long time, sometimes for days, progressing to an itchy spot that takes forever to fade away. You can put baking soda on a yellowjacket sting, but it won't help like it will with a honeybee sting. Overall these wasps will make you seriously reconsider that magnanimous "live and let live" policy that worked with the carpenter bees.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many species in the genus Vespula
  • Range: worldwide
  • Sting: Nasty, burning, long-lasting
  • Is it a pest?: Yes
  • What to do: There are some interesting ways to attack a yellowjacket nest on your property, but remember that any poison you put in the ground will kill everything else and last a long time.

Recommended for You

Getting Rid of a Yellowjacket Nest Without Getting Stung

This sweet technique doesn't use chemicals or poison, doesn't disrupt the ground or any other organisms, and costs way less than an exterminator. We can vouch for this method—it worked like a charm on a big yellowjacket nest in the backyard.

bee-and-wasp-identification

Paper Wasps

Paper wasps get their name from their amazing ability to grind wood into pulp with their jaws, mix it with enzymes in their spit, and build architecturally perfect nests out of the paper they produce. The fact that they tend to build their nests right under your eaves—maybe right next to some perfectly round holes drilled by their friends, the carpenter bees—makes them appear to be little more than a pest.

The reality is that paper wasps do you more good than harm. Like the closely related yellowjackets and hornets, they are relentless hunters of caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other "pest" insects. They don't do much in the way of pollination, but they do keep down the population of hornworms, cabbage worms, cutworms, sawfly larvae, and all kinds of other garden nuisances.

Paper wasp stings are no joke, but they do not often sting. They also do not really go in for sweet things the way yellowjackets do, so you are unlikely to get zapped by a paper wasp while going in for a third cupcake at your niece's backyard birthday party. If you do get stung by a paper wasp, it's probably because you tried to blast their brilliantly conceived and executed nest off of your garage with a garden hose. But you wouldn't do something that dumb and destructive, would you?

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Several species in the genus Vespidae.
  • Range: Worldwide, in various forms
  • Sting: Sharp and electric, but not long-lasting
  • Is it a pest?: For some people, hosting a paper wasp nest can seem like an insult.
  • What to do: If you really must remove a paper wasp nest, wait till after dark and then really blast it with a power washer. You won't kill all the bees, but you will wreak enough havoc on the nest that they probably won't return.
A mud dauber, daubing mud

A mud dauber, daubing mud

Mud Daubers

You may have noticed, on hot summer days when the sprinkler starts, a slender, black and yellow wasp that comes to check the water on the ground. The wasp is nervous and quick, and constantly flicks its wings. This is a mud dauber, and you may have guessed that it's there for the mud.

Mud daubers search out wet, clay-based dirt with which to make their nest, which take a variety of shapes, depending on the species. Many are in the shape of tubes, often in side-by-side rows; some look like perfect little works of pottery. They all serve one purpose—to house the larval wasp as it feeds on the spiders and other prey that the mama mud-dauber provides.

Mud daubers are often black with orange markings, or occasionally silver. They can sting, but they are non-aggressive and much too preoccupied with daubing mud to bother with harassing you.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Some wasps in the families Sphecidae and Crabronidae
  • Range: Worldwide
  • Sting: Females can sting but they are non-aggressive.
  • Is it a pest?: no, although the nests may become a permanent feature of the outside of your house.
  • What to do: If the nests are a problem for you, they can be removed, but it may take some work!
A mud dauber nest

A mud dauber nest

bee-and-wasp-identification

Cicada Killers

If you live in an area where cicadas are present, then it’s almost a certainty that there are cicada killers in your neighborhood as well. They are hard to miss, even if you are not all that tuned in to the insect world swirling around you. Cicada killer wasps are huge, easily the biggest wasp in the eastern United States, and only rivaled in the desert southwest by the tarantula hawk.

Cicada killers are big for a reason (and it’s generally the same reason that tarantula hawks are so big)—they need to be able to attack and overpower some pretty sizeable prey. Cicadas are among the largest insects you will find, and even though they are pretty much defenseless, the cicada killer wasp has to not only kill but also lug a big, heavy cicada corpse back to its burrow.

Like the tarantula hawk, the cicada killer is solitary; it digs a burrow and then provisions it with a paralyzed cicada, upon which the female lays an egg. When the egg hatches out…well, we’ll leave that bit up to your imagination. Let’s just say it isn’t nice. Or pretty.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Sphecius speciosus
  • Range: Eastern and Midwest US, south into Mexico and Central America.
  • Sting: The females pack a powerful sting, but are not aggressive.
  • Is it a pest?: The nests can be unsightly if numerous, but the insects are benign.
  • What to do: Unless you are fanatical about your sidewalk edges, or a cicada, you have nothing to worry about.
bee-and-wasp-identification

Tarantula Hawks

These huge wasps are something like cicada killers, only their prey is a little more challenging. While cicadas are big, harmless insects that can't really fight back, these wasps pick on tarantulas: big, venomous arachnids who most definitely do fight back. Any predator taking on an animal like a tarantula has to be equipped for the fight.

Partly for this reason, the tarantula hawk wasp has one of the most potent stings of any insect. Another reason for a creature to have a sting is for self defense against those animals that might want to eat it; any mammal trying to eat a tarantula hawk will be unlikely to forget the outcome, which protects all of the tarantula hawks that animal sees down the road (it also protects insects that look like the one that stings, which is the basis for a kind of mimicry found throughout the animal kingdom). For a quick demonstration of the power of this wasp's sting, check out the video below.

Like the cicada killer, the tarantula hawk finds, stings, and stuffs its prey into a burrow, laying an egg on the paralyzed victim. When the wasp larva (a pale, featureless grub, kind of like a caterpillar) hatches out, it feeds on the tarantula until it's full grown. This brutal but effective model for raising your kids is common in the insect world, especially among wasps.

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Several species in the genus Pepsis
  • Range: Southwestern US
  • Sting: The females pack a powerful sting, and should be treated with deference.
  • Is it a pest?: Not usually
  • What to do: Watch, but don't get too close.

Take a Quick Poll

bee-and-wasp-identification

Honorable Mention: Bee-Mimic Flies

Finally, there are many bees that you will see that are in fact not bees, but flies. Generally called bee-mimic flies, they belong to a number of different groups. What these insects all have in common is that they have evolved a method of defense that relies on the painful stings of bees and wasps as a deterrent, even though the mimic has no sting itself and is in fact totally harmless.

A good example are the flies in the family Syrphidae. Sometimes called hoverflies or flower flies, these cool insects look and act just like bees—many of them even buzz like bees. Most people, and more importantly predators, are likely to see the insect, thank "that's a bee," and leave it alone. But syrphid flies cannot sting and are in reality totally defenseless. They save themselves the metabolic expense of having to maintain an actual stinging mechanism and gain much of the protection by just looking dangerous.

Maybe you know some people who are a little bit like this. It can be a very effective form of protection!

The Facts

  • Scientific name: Many groups, especially the family Syrphidae
  • Range: Worldwide
  • Sting: None
  • Is it a pest?: No
  • What to do: Look knowingly at the insect and think, "I am onto you."

Thanks for Reading!

We hope this guide to bees and wasps was helpful. Please do what you can to help the natural world survive the Anthropocene Era!

Resources

  • https://www.pollinator.org/bees-vs-wasps
  • https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/environment/bees-vs-wasps-case-mistaken-indentity
  • https://extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden-insects/wasps-and-bees
  • https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/woolcarderbee/
  • https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?search=Anthidium+manicatum
  • https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/how-to-tell-bees-from-wasps-and-flies/
  • https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2018/08/21/honey-bee-colony-collapse-disorder-what-you-can-do-help/1053875002/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 06, 2021:

That I agree. And is also educating.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on July 06, 2021:

Very informative. Thanks.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 06, 2021:

The last time a bee buz around me, I prevent the animal stinging me. For in the Tropics it can be fatal.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 06, 2021:

We used to have carpenter bees at our last home. They can really do a lot of damage! We have loads of the mud daubers at our current home and spend much time knocking their nests off of our brick. This was informative and interesting to read about the various kinds of bees and wasps.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 06, 2021:

GreenMind, you've remove the mysteries concerning bees. Thanks.

Amara from Pakistan on July 06, 2021:

A very well written and Informative Hub..

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