If you enjoy being outside, you will come into contact with bees, bugs and other insects. Honey bees have a reputation for being a docile insect. Some of their cousins tend to be a bit more defensive. To help us avoid trouble – and stay safe, you need to know: what does a honey bee look like?
How to Recognize a Bee
Most everyone is familiar with honey bees. Together with Bumbles, they are two of the most popular insects on the planet.
May contain affiliate links. Read my privacy and affiliate disclosure policy for more info.
Both of them have a reputation for being rather docile as they go about their daily tasks. Female worker bees of both types work in the field. They calmly gather pollen and nectar to carry back to the hive or nest.
You may see other insects in the garden that at first glance look very “beeish”. However, there are some major differences between bees and wasps.
Wasps and hornets have a very different lifestyle. Their more aggressive behavior requires a much wider area of personal space. It is wise to give them that security and avoid them when possible.
While we can picture in our mind what a honey bee looks like, identifying one flying in the wild is not always easy.
If you see a black and yellow flying insect that may have a stinger, it can be a time of excitement for anyone. If you suffer from a severe fear of bees, your heart may beat even faster.
Learning how to identify the various members of the insect world can be an empowering feeling. It helps you know whether to stay and watch or back farther away.
Honey Bee Identification Factors
Honey bees are insects. These medium sized bees belong to the genus “Apis”. Like all insects they have 3 major body sections: head, thorax, and abdomen.
They have 5 eyes consisting of 2 large eyes and 3 small ones. The large eyes are used for sight and the smaller eyes are light indicators.
A study of honey bee anatomy shows several specialized structures that allow them to carry out their tasks for the colony.
We can see pollen baskets, antenna etc. However, some physical structures are not always noticeable during casual visual inspection.
In art, we draw bee pictures using a lot of yellow and black. Actually, they come in various shades of black, brown, and yellow. Some have noticeable stripes on their abdomen but some do not.
There are several species of honey bees in the world and different races of bee genetics too. In the field, all honey bees look alike to the casual observer.
The only noticeable difference would be light or dark coloring and the vibrancy of stripes. Not native to the United States, some of the first bees brought over from Europe were very dark or black bees.
Are Honey Bees Fuzzy?
The body and even the eyes of honey bees are covered with short hairs. While not as fuzzy as their Bumble Bee cousins, they are fuzzy.
This is a good advantage when bees are used for pollination. The extra hairs help move grains of pollen from one flower to another.
Size of Honey Bees
How big do honey bees get? Well, it depends to a large degree on the sex of the bee. The queen bee is the largest bee in the colony. She can reach a size of 20-25mm. It is rare to see a queen outside the hive.
Drones or male bees are slightly bigger than workers reaching a size of – 18-20 centimeters. You may see them away from the hive but they do not gather pollen or nectar.
Female worker bees average between 9 and 15 mm in length. Most of the members of a colony are workers. Early in life, they work inside the hive – perhaps as nurse bees.
Later, they become the foragers for the hive and the ones you are most likely to see in the garden. In it not unusual for honey bee colonies to have thousands of workers.
What do Young Honey Bees Look Like?
Young honey bees like pretty much like any other adult in the hive. When baby bees complete their development, they emerge from the cell fully grown.
During the first few hours after emergence, we call them a “callow bee”. They may have a greyish appearance for a short while.
Once their exoskeleton and wings dry, they will look very much like other members of the colony. The only noticeable difference in younger bees is that the thorax often has more hair than that of older members of the colony.
What Does a Killer Bee Look Like?
A killer bee looks like any other honey bee. In spite of a slight variation in size, they are indistinguishable in the field.
True identification of killer bees, or Africanized Bees takes place in the lab with precise measurements.
Is This a Honey Bee?
It is natural to see bees nearby and want to know what kind they are. Use these tips to help determine if it is a honey bee. Honey bees don’t mind if you quietly observe them as long as you are not near a beehive.
- has 6 legs and 4 wings
- is covered in fine hair
- barrel shaped body – no wasp waist-but defined segments
- is the insect carrying pollen?
- what are the bees doing?
- are you near a nest?
First, does the insect pass the basic anatomy of bees? It has 6 legs and 4 wings. What about body shape?
Honey bees have a blocky body and lack the thin “wasp waist” seen in insects such as paper wasps. Yet, you can still identify 3 sections.
Honey Bees and Bumble Bees collect pollen for rearing young. Seeing an insect carrying colorful balls of pollen on their hind legs suggests that this is indeed a bee and not a wasp.
What are the bees doing? Both wasps and bees will partake of sweet plant nectar. However, bees are more likely to spend a longer time moving from flower to flower.
Are you near a nest? Bee nests and wasp nests are very different. Honey Bees nest in cavities and not normally in the ground.
Identifying a Swarm
If you see a large number of insects visiting nectar rich flowers, this could be one of many different types of insects.
However, if those insects are hanging together in a clump – you have likely found a honey bee swarm. In most cases, this is just temporary and they will leave in the next day or so to start a new hive.
If they hang around for several days, check with a local beekeeping association. A beekeeper will likely be glad to come and collect them.
Swarms are generally not dangerous but do not allow kids or pets to harass them. Even honey bees will sting in defense.
Pictures of Insects Similar to Honey Bees
The most common insects often confused with honey bees are Bumble Bees, Carpenter Bees and Yellow Jacket Wasps.
This is especially true for the small wasps. Their vivid markings are often confused for honey bee stripes.
However, there are other insects that look so much like honey bees that they may be mistakenly mis-identified even by beekeepers.
Hover flies are easily mistaken for bees. With their body shape, fuzzy covering and markings, they are much like a bee. However, they only have 2 wings instead of 4 wings that we find on the honey bee.
A bit large to be confused with a honey bee, the hummingbird moth makes quite a display in the garden. They are often thought to be some type of bumble bee.
There are several varieties of Mason Bees. Some look more like common house flies while others closely resemble our honey bee.
Mason Bees do not live in large families, they are solitary insects. The easiest way to identify them is by the metallic sheen than many have on their body.
The Cicada Killer Wasp has the bright black and yellow coloring of many bees. They prey on Cicadas and are not aggressive to humans. Left alone, they rarely sting.
Bee Identification Promotes Safety
Learning how to identify honey bees and other insects is a very important skill. All pollinators have a place in our world and deserve protection and respect. But, human safety involves understanding the traits of various insects.
Knowing what a honey bee looks like allows you to safely watch their work. By understanding the temperament of the insects in our area, we can enjoy being outside without fear.
Bees have had a connection with mankind for a long time. In some cases, we even tell the bees about major life events. But, enjoy them from a safe distance.