About bees

Is this a bee?

To the untrained eye, bees can often be confused with other insects, such as wasps, flies, and even ants. This confusion is compounded if these insects mimic bees in their behavior and/or coloration patterns.

Bees are generally characterized by a hairy body with branched or plumose hairs (also known as setae), a short and collar-like pronotum with a pronotal lobe that is separated from the tegula, and a metabasitarsus that is longer and broader than other tarsomeres (Triplehorn and Johnson 2005). Most female bees also have scopae, which are used to gather pollen, on their hind legs or abdomen.

Bees, such as this male Anthidium manicatum, are generally characterized by a hairy body.
Bees, such as this male Anthidium manicatum, are generally characterized by a hairy body. Photo by Chelsey Ritner.

Wasps (i.e., families Vespidae and Chrysididae, among others) have simple (unbranched) hairs on their bodies, are less hairy overall, and do not have pollen-collecting hairs on their legs or abdomen. Sphecid wasps (family Sphecidae s.str.) have silvery, shiny hairs on their face, whereas bees do not (Wilson and Messinger Carril 2016). Wasps are also often more aggressive than bees and carnivorous at some point in their development (most wasps obtain their protein source from other insects or animal carrion). In general, bees are not predatory. Further, bees do not build paper nests like some wasps do.

Cuckoo wasp, family Chrysididae (left)
cuckoo wasp, family Chrysididae; photo by Chelsey Ritner
mason bee <em>Osmia kincaidii</em>, family Megachilidae (right)
mason bee Osmia kincaidii, family Megachilidae; photo by Chelsey Ritner
Wasp, family Crabronidae
wasp, family Crabronidae; photo by Chelsey Ritner
cuckoo bee <em>Nomada</em> sp., family Apidae
cuckoo bee Nomada sp., family Apidae; photo by Chelsey Ritner

Flies (i.e. families Syrphidae, Asilidae, and Bombyliidae, among others) can likewise mimic bees in shape and coloration, but they can be easily differentiated because they only have a single pair of wings (2 wings total), two short, blunt antennae that seem to originate from the same point on the head, and large eyes that touch or nearly touch at the top of the head. In contrast, bees have two pairs of wings (4 wings total), long antennae that are more widely spaced, and eyes that usually take up much less space on their heads (with the notable exception of male honey bees and carpenter bees, which have unusually large eyes for bees). Flies also lack pollen-collecting hairs that are characteristic of most female bees.

Bee mimic fly, family Syrphidae
bee-mimic fly, family Syrphidae; photo by Chelsey Ritner
Bee mimic fly, family Syrphidae
bee-mimic fly, family Syrphidae; photo by Chelsey Ritner

Ants are less likely to be mistaken as bees due to differences in coloration, but because some ants bear wings, misidentifications can occur. Ants have a one- or two-segmented hump or node (pedicel) between the propodeum and first metasomal segment. Bees lack this node.

Winged male ant (family Formicidae)
winged male ant (family Formicidae); photo by Chelsey Ritner