How to Identify Different Types of Bees

Color illustration showing seven types of bee species in a colorful garden

Treehugger / Ellen Lindner


When was the last time you were in your garden, saw a bee, grabbed it and squeezed it? Probably never, right?

Unless you've done that, there's a good chance that if you've ever been stung it wasn't by a bee, says Becky Griffin. And she would know. Griffin teaches classes on bees to children and adults through the Center for Urban Agriculture at the University of Georgia Extension's Northwest District and is a certified beekeeper in Cherokee County, Georgia.

All U.S. native bees and honeybees, which are not native to North America, are capable of stinging, Griffin says. "But you would be hard-pressed to be stung by one unless you accidentally smushed it or attacked its hive," she adds. "Bees are truly not interested in people at all. They are interested in plants and flowers. If you've been stung, it was most likely by a wasp such as a yellow jacket."

To understand why bees typically don't sting, Griffin says it helps to recognize and understand their behavior. Here is her take on the different types of bees—plus wasps, and a fly that mimics bees—that you're most likely to encounter in your vegetable or ornamental garden, no matter where in the U.S. you live. The insects described below represent groups of insects, of which there are many varieties.

Western Honeybees (Apis mellifera)

A honey bee drone
Honeybees go the extra mile for some pollen.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

These bees, which were imported to North America to pollinate agricultural crops, are easy to distinguish from native bees by their coloring, which is golden brown with black abdominal stripes.

The honeybees you'll see are female workers. Look closely at them, and if they've been visiting flowers you will notice yellow pollen on their legs. As the bees collect pollen, they move it across their bodies and to their legs where they place it in little pollen baskets.

In the U.S., most honeybees live in artificial hives maintained by professional or hobbyist beekeepers. Only rarely do they live in wild colonies. Even if you don't think you have a beekeeper in your neighborhood you may still see honeybees. They will fly 3 miles or more from their hive to find what they need. Pollination by honeybees only occurs when pollen, for whatever reason, doesn’t get into their pollen baskets.

On the rare chance a honeybee might sting you, she can only do it once. That's because honeybees have a barbed stinger that is attached to their abdomen and digestive tract. Consequently, when the bee pulls away after stinging, her stinger remains with the victim. She literally rips her guts out.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Honeybees pollinate a wide range of plants, including important agricultural crops like almonds, although they're often less efficient than native bees.
  • Do they sting? They can sting, but rarely do unless you handle them or get too close to their colony.
  • How to get rid of honeybees: For the most part, it's best to leave bees alone rather than trying to get rid of them. If you're seeing a few honeybees foraging, it probably means a hive is located somewhere nearby. If a swarm of honeybees settles on your property, give them some time if possible; they may just be resting while scout bees search for a new home elsewhere. Otherwise, try contacting a local beekeeper to help you remove the swarm.

Bumblebees (Genus: Bombus)

Bombus bimaculatus, or a bumble bee
Bumblebees are particularly furry bees.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

There are 49 species of bumblebees native to the U.S., according to the U.S. Forest Service. These bees are a little larger than honeybees and have a black body covered with dense yellow and black hair. They can be confused with carpenter bees, but Griffin says there's an easy way to tell the difference: Carpenter bees are noticeably larger than bumblebees.

"I tell my classes that the carpenter bee is like a Mack truck, while bumblebees are more like a pickup," Griffin says. Carpenter bees, for instance, have a broad head, whereas bumblebees have a smaller head.

Bumblebees also have more hair on their abdomens than carpenter bees. If you're thinking you don't want to get close enough to a bee to look at its abdomen, Griffin encourages you to remember these bees are looking for pollen, not for you.

Bumblebees get their name from the noise they create inside a flower. They make the noise by moving around so quickly they sonicate the pollen off the flower and onto the hairs on their body.

Like the honeybee, the bumblebees you see are female workers who groom the pollen back and into pollen baskets on their legs. They live in colonies, residing in nests they build in the ground, often in abandoned mammal holes.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Bumblebees pollinate a wide range of native wildflowers, and they're also important pollinators of certain agricultural crops, including tomatoes.
  • Do they sting? They can sting, but rarely do unless you handle them or get too close to their nest.
  • How to get rid of bumblebees: Bumblebees are non-aggressive bees that tend to form small colonies with just a few dozen bees. You will rarely need to remove them, but if you do, avoid killing them if at all possible, since many native bumblebee species are already in decline. Try instead to repel them, perhaps spraying the nest at night with a solution of equal parts vinegar and water.

Carpenter Bees (Genus: Xylocopa)

Xylocopa India yellow carpenter bee
Carpenter bees can be destructive, but they're also key pollinators.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

Carpenter bees, also sometimes known as wood bees, don't have a great reputation. That's because they are the ones (the female workers, again) that bore into your wood and make a hole as neat and clean as if it was bored out with a power drill. The presence of sawdust on sills or stoops is an indication you should look for a hole, which is the female's reproductive nest.

She lays her eggs, females first and males last. The bees emerge from the hole in the spring, leaving in single file. The males go out first so they can be ready to mate with the females when they leave the nest.

Many people find carpenter bees destructive. The only thing that seems to deter them is painted or sealed wood. Traps are available, but these tend to kill the bees.

Carpenter bees also have the reputation of being the robber barons of the bee world. They chew into small flowers into which they can't fit, such as those on blueberries, to get to the nectar before blueberry bees visit the flower. When this happens, they aren't pollinating the flower; they are simply "stealing" the nectar without providing a natural benefit.

On the flowers of other plants, however, carpenter bees are excellent pollinators. Carpenter bees, like honeybees and bumblebees, have pollen baskets on their legs. They also have a black body with dense yellow and black hairs on their head and thorax and a bald abdomen.

If you've ever had a large bee swoop down and hover in front of your face, it was probably a carpenter bee. Your first thought when this happens may be that you're under attack, but you're not. It's just being territorial.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. "Some people consider carpenter bees pests because they drill holes or nest in wooden structures. However, their contribution to pollination far outweighs any damage to structures," according to the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
  • Do they sting? Females can sting in defense, but rarely do. Males appear a little more aggressive and territorial, but cannot sting.
  • How to get rid of carpenter bees: As with most bees, it's best to leave them alone rather than try to evict them. They may occasionally buzz your face, but they're unlikely to sting. Paint or seal wood to prevent them from nesting in it. If they've already nested and you want to kick them out, try playing loud music near their nest or spraying it with a citrus repellent (boil sliced citrus fruit in water for 10 to 15 minutes, then let the water cool down before spraying it on the nest).

Mason Bees (Genus: Osmia)

Osmia atriventris, a mason bee
Mason bees are sleek members of the bee family.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

These are small, fast-flying bees that have the agility of a tiny fighter jet and have metallic colors including blue, dull green, and black. They do not have pollen baskets on their legs. Instead, they carry pollen in hairs on the underside of their abdomens.

Mason bees are most active in the spring and get their name from their habit of using mud to close nest cavities. In nature, they look for a hollowed-out stem or a twig. They also will readily come to bee hotels where environmentally conscious gardeners have pre-drilled holes for them.

Like the carpenter bees, a mason bee will lay female eggs in the back of the nest first and then the male eggs. After that, she will gather nectar and use enzymes to create a food source for the offspring, which will be born the next spring. Finally, she will use mud to seal the opening to the nest. In the spring, the males will emerge first and be ready to mate when the females are born and emerge from the nest.

If you are trying to attract mason bees to a bee hotel, be sure not to cover every bare spot in your landscape with grass or a ground cover. Leave some areas that can become a little muddy after rains or watering.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Mason bees are generalists that visit a variety of flowers, often focusing on those nearest to their nest. The blue orchard mason bee is a productive pollinator of spring-flowering fruit and nut trees.
  • Do they sting? Male mason bees can't sting. Females technically can, but they're even more docile than honeybees, stinging people only when they're handled roughly or trapped under clothing.
  • How to get rid of mason bees: Mason bees and other ground bees are not aggressive, and their nesting behavior causes minimal damage to lawns or gardens. Getting rid of them is rarely necessary. If you'd rather not share a habitat with them, try to prevent the kind of dry, exposed soil they use for nesting. Maintain a dense turf, water frequently, and use mulch to cover bare spots.

Leafcutter Bees (Genus: Megachile)

Megachile parallela or a leafcutter bee
Leafcutter bees' white fur and big jaws stand out among their peers.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

These bees are very similar to Mason bees in their nesting characteristics, except that they use leaves to close up their nest cavities.

They are black with white hairs covering the thorax and the bottom of the abdomen, and many species have large heads with massive jaws to aid in cutting off pieces of leaves to seal their nests. Also like mason bees, they carry pollen on their abdomens and are very fast flyers.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Leafcutter bees are important pollinators of many wildflowers, as well as some fruits and vegetables. They're used by commercial growers to pollinate crops including alfalfa, blueberries, carrots, and onions.
  • Do they sting? They can sting, but these solitary bees do not aggressively defend their nests. They only sting when handled, according to the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which describes a leafcutter bee sting as "far less painful" than that of a honeybee.
  • How to get rid of leafcutter bees: Like most bees, leafcutter bees are beneficial and usually don't need to be removed. Stinging isn't much of a risk, but while their habit of cutting holes in foliage may not harm the plants, it can reduce the aesthetic value of some ornamentals. To stop this, cut away your plants' dead or damaged stems, which can attract leafcutter bees, or try wrapping the plants in cheesecloth to protect them. You could also set up a bee hotel somewhere away from the plants to draw the bees away.

Blueberry Bees (Habropoda laboriosa, Southeastern Blueberry Bee)

A Habropoda laboriosa, or blueberry bee
Blueberry bees are a perfect fit for flowers on blueberry plants.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

These bees are about the size of a honeybee but have hair patterns and banding that give them the appearance of a small version of a bumblebee or a carpenter bee.

They get their name because they've evolved with native blueberries, and their bodies have become a perfect fit for bell-shaped blueberry flowers.

While they're excellent pollinators for blueberries, they also pollinate other plants. Blueberry bees nest in the ground, especially near blueberry plants once they find them.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Aside from their namesake berry, Southeastern blueberry bees also pollinate other plants that flower in early spring—including Carolina jessamine, oaks, and redbuds—although they may be less efficient pollinators than some other native bees.
  • Do they sting? Like many solitary bees, they tend to sting only when someone accidentally crushes them.
  • How to get rid of blueberry bees: There are few if any risks posed by these beneficial bees, and thus few reasons to bother trying to get rid of them. If you must, try tactics similar to those for discouraging mason bees and other ground-nesting bees, such as reducing the dry, exposed soils where they like to nest.

Squash Bees (Genera: Peponapis and Xenoglossa)

Xenoglossa strenua, or squash bee
Squash bees, like Xenoglossa strenua, pollinate cucurbit plants.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

These bees resemble the blueberry bee in that they have evolved to become specialists in the pollinating of the family Cucurbita, which includes squash, zucchini, pumpkins, and many gourds.

They are one of the few bees that fly pre-dawn. Their primary flight times last until mid-morning, and they will fly again near dusk when squash and melon flowers open.

If you see a bee nesting in a squash flower, it's almost certainly a male squash bee, as they nest and mate in squash flowers. Females nest in the ground near food sources.

Bumblebees also will pollinate squash flowers but tend to linger in the flower while female squash bees do their business and leave. Because the bodies of bumblebees are not designed to pollinate squash, they will have trouble pollinating the flowers, sometimes having to use their legs to balance themselves in the blossom.

The head and thorax of squash bees range in color from black or tan to orange. The thorax is hairy and black with banded abdomen stripes that are black, white, or tan.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Squash bees gather pollen exclusively from plants in the genus Cucurbita, according to North Carolina State Extension, which notes that, along with bumblebees, squash bees "can do more than 10 times the amount of pollination necessary for a field." They are also regular visitors to home vegetable gardens.
  • Do they sting? As with many ground-nesting species, squash bees are not aggressive and very rarely sting humans.
  • How to get rid of squash bees: There are few if any risks posed by these beneficial bees, and thus few reasons to bother trying to get rid of them. If you must, try tactics similar to those for discouraging mason bees and other ground-nesting bees, such as reducing the dry, exposed soils where they like to nest.

Sweat Bees (Various Genera)

Halictus confusus, a sweat bee
Halictus confusus, a type of sweat bee.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

This is a large group of small bees, with some only a quarter of the size of a honeybee. They have come to be known by the common name of "sweat bee" because they are attracted to human perspiration.

They are also excellent pollinators and are active into October and even November. Because of their size, they are attracted to small flowers like fall-blooming asters of the Southeast.

Sweat bees range in color from black to metallic blues and greens, with copper and blue overtones. Some have stripes on their abdomens. They can be difficult to see due to their small size and high speed.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Unlike specialist squash bees, sweat bees are generalist pollinators, visiting a wide range of flowering plants.
  • Do they sting? Female sweat bees can sting, but they are not aggressive. The best way to avoid being stung is to leave them alone.
  • How to get rid of them: Sweat bees are yet another group of beneficial bees that usually don't need to be evicted. If you're worried about being stung, however, use methods similar to other ground bees: Keep the ground moist and grow some kind of vegetation over bare spots to limit potential nesting sites.

Hoverflies (Family: Syrphidae)

A hoverfly sits on a flower
There are more than 6,000 species of hoverflies. Ilona Ilyés [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Hoverflies, also called flower flies, are a large and important group of pollinators and the most numerous of the pollinating flies. There are more than 6,000 species, including many that mimic bees for protection.

Once you realize the difference between flies and bees and get attuned to looking for hoverflies, you will start to see them everywhere. One key difference is that bees have four wings and flies have two. Another is that hoverflies and bees have very different eye structures. Flies, for instance, have huge eyes on either side of their head.

Hoverflies are especially attracted to flowers with sweet-tasting nectar. Some of these include mountain mint, asters, and hyssop.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes, but they don't always pollinate as efficiently as bees.
  • Do they sting? No, hoverflies don't have stingers.
  • How to get rid of hoverflies: Unlike bees, hoverflies don't raise their young in nests. Most hoverfly species have free-living larvae that are predatory, often feeding on pests like aphids. As stingless pollinators that eat aphids, there is little reason to try getting rid of hoverflies.

Wasps (Suborder: Apocrita)

There are more than 100,000 species of wasps, and many resemble bees in appearance.

In general, wasps have little hair, bright colors, and a very narrow waist (the junction between the thorax and abdomen). Most species have black and yellow color patterns.

Unlike bees, wasp legs tend to hang down during flight. They are much more aggressive than bees and far more likely to sting. Also, most wasps provide no pollination services. Here are four common types of wasps.

Yellow Jackets (Genus: Vespula or Dolichovespula)

Vespula squamosa, a southern yellow jacket
Yellow jackets, like Vespula squamosa, can sting multiple times.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

Yellow jackets are a carnivorous type of wasp and, in general, you will not see them in vegetable or flower gardens unless there is a nearby nest. If that’s the case, you may want to get rid of the nest. These can be dangerous insects for humans because individuals are aggressive, the colony will aggressively defend the nest, and because of the structure of their stinger.

Unlike the honeybee, yellow jackets have a lance-like stinger with only a small barb that doesn’t remain in its victim. Consequently, a yellow jacket can sting multiple times in succession. If you've ever been stung by one, you know the sting is painful, and the pain doesn't go away quickly.

Typical yellow jacket workers sometimes can be confused with honeybees. They are about the size of a honeybee, but in contrast to honeybees have yellow or white markings, their bodies are not covered with tan-brown dense hair, and they do not have pollen baskets on their hind legs.

They are generalists in the food they seek, often showing up at outdoor meals or picnics, especially if you are grilling hamburgers or hot dogs. In nature, they are looking for any kind of "meat" they can find. Ants are just one example of the prey they seek.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes, but they don't visit flowers much, instead mainly eating insects. They also don't pick up much pollen since they aren't very fuzzy.
  • Do they sting? Yes, and they can be aggressive, especially if they feel like their nest is threatened.
  • How to get rid of yellow jackets: Use natural methods to rid your yard of wasps.

Paper Wasps (Family: Vespidae)

Polistes africanus, paper wasp
Polistes africanus is a species of paper wasp. Muhammad Mahdi Karim [GNU FDL 1.2]/Wikimedia Commons

Paper wasps get their name from the way they build their nests, which are made from their saliva and plant material and have a papery appearance.

Because the nest looks somewhat like an umbrella, they are sometimes called umbrella wasps. They like to build their nests in protected areas of homes such as door frames, windowsills, and eaves.

Females are especially active in the fall, and may wander into homes looking for high places such as cathedral ceilings to build a nest. Like other wasps, if their nest is threatened they will aggressively defend it.

There are approximately two dozen species of paper wasps in North America. Typically, paper wasps have narrow brown bodies with black wings and yellow markings. Some species have color patterns resembling yellow jackets. Also like yellow jackets, their sting is painful and their nests may need to be removed.

For the garden, paper wasps are considered beneficial because they are pollinators that feed on nectar and other insects, including caterpillars, flies, and beetle larvae.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes. Paper wasps capture insects and spiders to feed their larvae, but the adults feed on nectar from a variety of flowers. They tend to collect less pollen than bees do, however, since their bodies are less fuzzy.
  • Do they sting? Yes, and they can be aggressive, especially if they feel like their nest is threatened.
  • How to get rid of paper wasps: See the link in the section about yellow jackets for tips on getting rid of wasps.

Potter Wasps (Family: Vespidae)

A mason wasp
Mason wasps are not aggressive toward humans. Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Potter wasps are related to mud daubers. They get their name from the way they build their nests, which are small, pot-like structures placed on vines and twigs. Nests are sometimes even found on homes, located in places like bricks or window screens.

Like paper wasps, these are beneficial wasps because they pollinate flowers and feed on a variety of caterpillars, which they paralyze with their sting and then feed to their own larvae. Unlike paper wasps, these wasps are not aggressive toward humans.

There are more than 200 genera of potter wasps and more than 3,200 species. These are attractive wasps, with most being black or brown with yellow, white, and orange, or patterns in a combination of these colors.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes, although like other wasps, they tend to be less efficient pollinators than bees.
  • Do they sting? Yes, but they're less aggressive than some other wasps.
  • How to get rid of potter wasps: See the link in the section about yellow jackets for tips on getting rid of wasps.

Hornets (Family: Vespidae)

Vespa crabro, the European hornet
The stinger of a hornet is often visible.

USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Public Domain

Hornets are a type of wasp. One way to distinguish hornets from other wasps is that hornets have a thick body and lack the distinctive thin waist generally found in other wasps. They are in the same subfamily as yellow jackets, but are larger and often colored black and white, whereas yellow jackets are black and yellow.

European hornets have started showing up in North America, and are as big or bigger than carpenter bees. In fact, they are large enough that their stinger is visible.

Hornet nests are papery and often located high in trees. These wasps will mobilize the entire nest to defend it if they believe the nest is threatened. Homeowners should be aware these are dangerous insects, and killing even one individual can release pheromones that will alert the nest and may cause more hornets to attack. These pheromones can even stick to clothing.

  • Are they pollinators? Yes, hornets provide some pollination. They may not be the most efficient pollinators, but like other wasps, they also provide pest control services by preying on a variety of insects and other invertebrates.
  • Do they sting? Yes, and they can be aggressive, especially if they feel like their nest is threatened.
  • How to get rid of hornets: See the link in the section about yellow jackets for tips on getting rid of wasps.

How to Attract Different Types of Bees

A honey bee sits on a flower
Bees collect glyphosate from plants that have been sprayed with weed killer, and it ends up in their honey. (Photo: Ivar Leidus/Wikimedia Commons)

Every vegetable garden needs flowers to attract bees, other pollinators, and beneficial insects. This is a principle that Griffin says she relentlessly preaches in her role as community and school garden coordinator.

"What I usually recommend is a mix of natives and then plants that we know from research give bees what they need," Griffin says. "Mostly I emphasize a succession of blooms."

Mason bees are her "poster child" for the value of having flowers that bloom during as much of the year as possible, as mason bees still fly when it's colder.

"If we have a warm day in January where we are hitting 52 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, then native bees such as the mason bee could be flying. And they are going to be looking for floral resources. If nothing is blooming in your yard or garden they are going to look elsewhere or they are going to be in trouble. So, if you can plant things that are going to bloom as early in the spring as possible and as far into the fall as possible, then you are going to attract more insects to your garden and your food plot in general, and you’re going to have a better population of really neat insects to watch," she says.

How Do You Determine the Mix of Flowers to Plant?

A bee investigates a purple flower
If you're not sure which flowers bees will like, contact your agricultural extension service for information. James Petts [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

"I would ask your extension service," Griffin says. "What they are going to recommend to you is based on research." Griffin thinks it's better to ask the extension service this question rather than garden centers because sometimes garden centers may recommend what they have on their benches or what is easy for them to get. "On the other hand," Griffin adds, "a lot of pollinator plants are really easy to grow from seed."

The University of Georgia, for example, is in the process of developing a pollinator blend specifically for Georgia. "I'm sure it's the same with other states in the Southeast," Griffin says. While that blend could work in other Southeastern states, Griffin says blends created in one region likely won’t do well in other regions because local pressures from diseases and other causes vary widely in different parts of the country. That's why homeowners should check with their local extension service.

"Every land grant university should have research-based information for their citizens," she says. With any luck, they may also have a research-based pollinator seed blend for your state.

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