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Backyard Bee Identification Guide: 5 Common Types of Bees

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 3 min read

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Bees are insects that pollinate flowers and enable the reproduction of a vast array of flowering plants.

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What Are Bees?

Bees are flying insects that feed on flower nectar and pollen. They serve as important pollinators in the life cycle of plants. There are seven biological families of bees (Apidae, Andrenidae, Colletidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae, Melittidae, and Stenotritidae), all of which are related to both ants and wasps. Some bees live in large colonies known as social beehives, where they cooperatively care for their brood and divide labor. These bees develop biologically through haplodiploidy, which means male bees develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid, while female bees develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid.

How to Identify Bees

Bees come in many species, but you can recognize most bees by the following characteristics.

  • Large heads: Bees' heads are quite large for their bodies, and they have big compound eyes.
  • Antennae: Bee antenna can detect sound, touch, taste, and smell.
  • Mandibles and a proboscis: A bee’s mandibles are for grabbing and crushing and the long proboscis is for sucking nectar from flowers.
  • Thorax and legs: A bee’s thorax and legs are covered with hair that captures pollen.
  • Nine-part abdomens: The three rearmost parts of the abdomen house a bee's stinger. However, bees rarely sting.
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5 Different Types of Bees

There are many species of bees that live in North America and throughout the world. Here are five common species you might encounter in your daily life:

  1. Honey bees: The Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the most common species of honey bee around the world. The honeybees you see on flowers are female worker bees, and their legs tend to be covered in pollen which they will bring back to their beehive. Honey bees rarely sting, but they can attack in large numbers if you threaten their queen bee.
  2. Bumblebees: There are over 40 species of bumblebee, all of which belong to the genus Bombus. Bumblebees are native pollinators in North America. They are not aggressive and live in small colonies. Bumblebee colonies produce honey, albeit on a smaller scale than honey bees.
  3. Carpenter bees: Carpenter bees have black bodies, often with yellow hairs on their head and thorax. They are solitary bees that burrow into dead wood, and they do not produce honey or beeswax—but like other bees, they are master pollinators. The males are stingless bees, but female carpenter bees can sting to defend a nest or food source.
  4. Sweat bees: Sweat bees are very small bees, far smaller than common honey bees. They are attracted to human perspiration, so you may find them circling you on a hot day. Female sweat bees can sting, but they are remarkably docile. They are solitary bees and do not produce honey or beeswax.
  5. Mason bees: One of the hardiest bee types on the planet, mason bees are small and agile and remain active year-round in temperate climates. If you see bees in the winter and early spring, it's quite possible they are mason bees. Mason bees are native to North America (they live year round in California and the Pacific Northwest), Asia, and Europe. As solitary bees, they do not produce honey or beeswax. Like carpenter bees, they frequently shelter in wood structures.

Other bee species include leafcutter bees, blueberry bees, digger bees, cuckoo bees, and squash bees. All these different kinds of bees exist in a pollinator partnership with native flowers in their respective habitats.

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How to Identify Bees vs. Wasps

Like bees, wasps are flying, stinging insects, but unlike bees, they feed mostly on other insects rather than flower pollen and nectar. Wasps tend to be far more aggressive than common bees and are accountable for most human stings. There are even more species of wasps than species of bees; scientists estimate that there are over 100,000 different species of wasp, compared to 20,000 bee species.

Common wasp species include yellow jackets, paper wasps, potter wasps, hornets, and mud daubers. These species are social wasps, which means they live in colonies much like European honey bees and North American bumblebees. Like bees, wasps have large eyes, segmented bodies, and similar behavior regarding nesting. However, unlike bee colonies, social wasp species do not produce honey.

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