Identifying Bees

What is it?

Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s superbee!  Yeah, it’s pretty easy to pick out a superhero from a plane just like it’s easy identifying bees from birds.  It gets a bit trickier, though, when you’re dealing with bees, wasps, and flies. 

Firstly, is the insect you’re looking at indeed a bee?  Secondly, if it is a bee, then what type of bee is it?  Here we’ll give you a 101 course in identifying bees and differentiating them from other insects.  Then we’ll look at the most popular species of bees you’re likely to find here in Northern America.  

What has wings, is black and gold, is an insect and pollinates flowering plants?   

bee, right? 

Well no, it could be a wasp, a bee or a fly. Read on to find out more… 

Identifying Bees : Bee or wasp?

Wasps really need a marketing agent to promote their profile.  Often chided for their ability to ruin a picnic, general society doesn’t completely understand the hugely beneficial role wasps play in our ecosystem. 

Wasps and bees are very closely related.  Identification between the two can be complicated.  Here are some key differences between the two.   As always, these are generalizations and some crossovers do exist, but we’ll try to keep you on the right track in identifying bees and wasps. 

identifying bees

First up take a look at the shape – wasps generally look like they have a tight belt on, and bees look more like they’re in track pants.  I’m trying to say that wasps are slender and have a pronounced petiole. 

Next, the wings.  Like the body shape, the wasp generally has wings that are long and slender.  Bees, on the other hand, have wings that are rounder and have a greater surface area.  Also, a bee’s antennae are usually shorter and stubbier than those of a wasp. 

Okay, still not sure about identifying bees and wasps?  Have a look at the color.  In general, wasps have a greater contrast between the colors on their body.  Bees are usually more muted in their color variation.  Obvious exceptions to this rule exist.   

Bee Fly

Bee or fly? 

Flies are pretty clued-up; some species have evolved to look like bees!  This makes identifying bees and flies a bit of a nightmare.  Flies play their own important role in the pollination game of flowering plants and are often mistaken for bees because of this.  

Where do we start here?  The eyes.  Bees have a more ovalized shape to their eyes and they are usually vertically arranged on their face.  Flies have eyes that almost bulge out from their heads. 

Take a close look at the wings – bees have two sets of wings whereas flies only have one.   

Still scratching your head?  Here’s a good one to tell them apart – hair.  Bees are much hairier than flies, this makes it easier to carry as much pollen as possible.  

Lastly, check the antennae.  Bees have pronounced antennae mostly used for smelling while flies have noticeably shorter antennae.   

Yep, good, it’s a bee.  If you can get this far, you’re doing a pretty good job.  Now, what type of bee is it?  Let’s take a look and get you started on your bee identification journey.   


Generally, larger and hairier than a honeybee, bumblebees are essential pollinators.  If you have the thought in your head, ‘Gee that’s a big loud bee,’ then you’re probably looking at a bumblebee – which makes it a bit easier identifying bees from bumblebees.  Common varieties in North America are the American Bumblebee, Common Eastern Bumblebee, Golden Northern Bumblebee and the Yellow-faced Bumblebee.   

bumble bees

Beware:  bumblebees get a bit addictive.  There’s a lot to learn about these wonderful bees.  Check out this book by Williams et al. – everything, and we mean everything, you need to know about North American bumblebees is here. 

Leafcutter bee

Leafcutter Bees

‘Hey, why is that waspy beelooking thing carrying a leaf?’  Nope, you’re not losing your mind or sight.  The leafcutter does exactly that – it cuts segments of leaves and makes multiple trips back to their nest site.  Size wise, they’re about the same as a honeybee.  Their bodies are best described as stout and they are predominately black.  Notably, most species of leafcutter bees carry pollen on their abdomen, and this can appear golden when they are loaded up.  


Carpenter Bees

The gentle giant of the bee world.  Carpenter bees are amongst the largest species of bee in the world.  As the name suggests, these bees create perfectly cylindrical homes in dead wood.  They are large black bees that are not fussy pollinators.  Keep an eye out if you have older, untreated wooden framed structures around your property.

Carpenter Bees

The lives of bees should really have a greater correlation with the lives we lead as humans.  The more we know about bees, the better we’ll be as individuals and communities.  Check out some of these works to get started on your bee journey.   

The goto book is this masterpiece by Heather Holm Bee families, the relationship between flora and bees and what we can do to help the bees is explained beautifully.  

For straight up identification for the beginner through to the seasoned bee hunter it’s hard to go past this amazing book by Joseph S Wilson, “Bees in Your Backyard”. 

We can’t leave without recommending this from Embry, “Our Native Bees”.  The insight into the often-forgotten lynchpin of our ecosystem and the dangers they face is excellent.


That’s a wrap!

Hope you’ve enjoyed identifying the bees in this article and other people’s backyards – now go outside and identify the bees in your backyard!! You’ll have a lot of fun!


Happy identifying bees in your backyard!