How to Identify Bees and Wasps

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The Bees in Your Backyard (Princeton University Press, 2015) by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril describes the natural history of the bees all around North America, and their role in our ecosystem as pollinators. Wilson and Messinger Carril go through 4,000 species of North American bees, with over 900 color photos throughout the book. The following excerpt is their guide to distinguishing bees form wasps and flies.

Even though bees are common in most neighborhoods, frequently seen on hikes, and ubiquitous residents of city parks, it is hard to tell whether an insect buzzing nearby is a bee or something else. It’s no wonder people get confused. Because bees sting, resembling one is a successful strategy for vulnerable insects, and many a bug has evolved the appearance of a buzzing bee; however, a keen eye and a little practice are all you need to see past the ruse.

Bees and wasps are the most similar in appearance, and they are the most easily confused. It is not uncommon to hear complaints about the “bee” that landed on somebody’s hamburger at a recent family picnic. Stories of the pesky nest dangling from a branch in the backyard abound. Hikers complain about the horrible buzzing creatures that swarmed from a log they used as a backrest halfway up the trail. And every summer, someone is attacked by “ground bees” while mowing the lawn. In all cases, the annoying insect was probably not a bee but a wasp. Wasps (including hornets and yellow jackets) and bees are close relatives, sharing in common a grandmother 100 million “greats” ago. In some instances the two are so similar that even trained scientists have difficulty distinguishing them. The bee called Neolarra, for example, was thought to be a wasp by the first researchers to see it. It didn’t help that the bee was dead and stuck to a pin, because the most telling differences between bees and wasps are their mannerisms and day-to-day behaviors.

Most important among these behavioral differences is that bees are pollen eaters. Wasps, in contrast, are meat eaters. While both visit flowers for nectar (the “energy drink” of the insect world), bees also visit flowers in order to collect pollen for their young. On the contrary, wasps pursue other insects and drag them back to the nest for their offspring to devour. This one dietary difference has resulted in very different bearings. To aid in the gathering of pollen, bees are usually hairy (pollen sticks to hair), and many species look like cotton candy with wings. Rooting around in flowers is messy business, and a few minutes rummaging among floral parts leaves a bee coated in hundreds of tiny grains of pollen. Using her many legs, the bee grooms herself, wiping all the pollen to the back of her body, where she stuffs it into the spaces between special stiff bristles on her legs or belly. These tufts or masses of special hairs are called scopa. Quite the opposite of the furry bee, wasps look like Olympic swimmers, devoid of all hair, skinny-waisted, and with long spindly legs.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Some bees have scant hair on their bodies and are wasp-thin. In these cases, look for silvery or golden hairs on the face; wasps tend to have glistening mugs, while bee hairs don’t shimmer from any angle. Behavior, as mentioned above, can be telling, too. Bees spend more time on flowers than wasps do; wasps in contrast are more likely to raid your backyard barbeque in search of animal proteins accidentally left on a plate.

Since bees and wasps are difficult to distinguish, many stung victims often blame the hapless bee for crimes not committed. The culprit in these cases is likely a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellow jacket. All live socially in hives. Ever the opportunists, these wasps take advantage of the many resources found in urban environments, often building their homes along fences, under eaves and decks, attached to windowsills, or in various holes or cavities. All three will collect fibers from dead wood and plants and then use their saliva to make a papier-mâché house of sorts. These nests often bear a strong resemblance to the honey bee hives depicted in Winnie the Pooh books, and it is thus not surprising that many people think these wasps are bees. These kinds of wasps also enjoy taking a bite of your grilled chicken back to the nest to feed their offspring, or stopping on the lip of your glass of root beer for a sugary sip. The gangly, thin-waisted, and hairless body gives them away as wasps and not bees, however. In addition, the wings of these wasps in particular are folded in a distinctive way. Rather than lying flat across their back (thorax) so they overlap over the abdomen, their wings run as parallel dark strips on either side of the thorax.

Five insects. Only one is a bee, though the other four are commonly mistaken for bees. From left to right: a mud dauber wasp, a paper wasp, a yellow jacket, a hover fly, and an actual bee (Svastra). Note the pollen-collecting hairs on the legs of the Svastra, the overall hairier body, and the stocky legs.

Though not close relatives of bees the way that wasps are, many flies mimic the bee look. For a fly, the advantages to playing copycat are huge. Bees have spent millennia evolving stings and every creature on land has learned that they are not to be messed with. For a fly, looking so painful can save them from becoming the lunch option of hungry birds, reptiles, and other potential predators. For a predator, of course, being able to tell the difference between a bee and a fly increases the number of options at the insect buffet. Over time, the discerning eye of the predator has therefore weeded out the not-so-good fly look-alikes, leaving behind flies that at first glance seem identical to bees—down to “pretend” pollen-collecting hairs on the legs!

Flies have several important characteristics that can help separate them from bees. First, flies have only two wings, while bees have four (a fore and a hind wing on each side). Second, flies usually have two short, blunt antennae that emerge from nearly the same place on their faces; bee antennae are longer (often much longer) and more widely spaced. Third, fly eyes are usually bigger and closer together than typical bee eyes, often almost touching at the top. As they do not carry pollen, flies have no dense tufts of stiff hairs on their bellies or legs (though a few species mimic this look with bright spots on their abdomens near the back legs). And finally, if you’ve actually captured a specimen for your collection, flies are much squishier, and piercing them with a pin is like piercing Jell-O. Bee bodies are much more resistant to the insect pin.

Even when a bee is properly identified as such, there are many common misconceptions about how it lives. Because of the importance and abundance of honey bees, we are most familiar with their life cycle. It is often assumed that all bees follow a lifestyle similar to that of the honey bee, when in fact honey bees are the exception rather than the rule for the habits of bees as a whole. Though extraordinary creatures, they are poor representatives of their fellow bee kin. First, honey bees live in hives, but 70 percent of all bees live in the ground. Second, honey bees are social and work together to build their hive nest; in contrast most other kinds of bees work alone. Third, honey bee mothers meet their offspring; the majority of bee mothers never encounter their young. And finally, honey bees make and store honey to eat in the winter, which few other bees do. We delve into each of these topics in our book, The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees.

Excerpted from THE BEES IN YOUR BACKYARD: A Guide to North America’s Bees by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. Copyright © 2015 Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. Published and reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.