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Is a Honey Bee an Insect?

While it may seem like an easy question to answer, many people do ask.  Is a bee an insect?  Aren’t bees bugs? What is the difference between bees, bugs and insects and where does our honey bee fit in all this? In the scientific world, all living things are grouped according to certain characteristics. While it certainly does not matter to the bees, it is good to know their proper classification.

Are Bees Insects?

Honey bee insect foraging on flower image.

Scientific classification of living things is based on various similarities and differences between them. A general classification system is in place but researchers sometimes disagree.

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Confusion in the classification of living things is nothing new. It is not unusual for something  to be classified in one category and then moved to another in a few years.

Insects are members of the Animal Kingdom of Scientific Classification.  They are classified in a hierarchical system:  Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species .

Also, the common names for some creatures add more mystery to the topic.  Take the Butterfly for instance.  A Butterfly is not a fly. 

It is a member of the Order – Lepidoptera. This classification ( Lepidoptera) includes butterflies and moths but not true flies.

Confused yet?  It can be especially confusing when classifying insects that come from so many different species.  This is the beauty of life – diversity.

Yellow and black butterfly foraging on flower image.

Bees are Arthropods

In our Scientific Classification system, the second level is Phylum. In our search for the bee, we are looking at the Phylum – Arthropod. 

Arthropods have segmented bodies, exoskeletons (instead of skin) and at least 3 pair of legs. A quick look into honey bee anatomy confirms these to be characteristics of our bees.

So yes a honey bee is considered an arthropod and the honey bee is a member of the animal kingdom.

The next level is Class.  The Class Insecta includes all the insects in the world.  And, there are a lot of members in this group. 

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Under the Insecta class, insects are divided into at least 29 orders.  This is based most often on the similarities and differences in physical characteristics.

In the US, the most common orders of insects are:

  • Coleoptera – beetles
  • Diptera – flies
  • Hymenoptera – ants, wasps, bees
  • Lepidoptera – moths and butterflies

Why a Honey Bee is in the Class Insecta

We are grouping living things by certain shared characteristics. Members of the Class – Insecta, have the following characteristics:

  • 3 pair of legs
  • 3 distinct body parts or segments

Hmmm… this description sure sounds like our honey bee – doesn’t it?  The honey bee has 2 pair of wings, 3 sets of legs (3 on each side) and 3 distinct body parts: head, thorax, abdomen. Yes, identification is confirmed. Our honey bees are indeed insects and belong in the class Insecta.

Diagram of the parts of a honey bee with labels image.

Some entomologists (scientists who study insects) assert that an insect should also have external mouth parts and a pair of antenna. No problem, our honey bees fit that description too!

Another common visitor to our gardens is the Bumble bee. As the name directs, Bumble bees are insects too. Even though they have different nests and life styles than a honey bee, they do share many common characteristics. Both are important pollinators.

Scientific Classification of the Western Honey Bee-Apis mellifera

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Hymenoptera
  • Family: Apidae
  • Genus: Apis
  • Species: A. mellifera
Chart of the scientific insect classification of western honey bee image.

While bees are closely related to wasps and ants, they have some attributes that make them different. As we move down the family tree, classification continues dividing members into different families and subfamilies based on their similarities and differences.

It is also important to remember that the scientific community sometimes changes things around so this information is not set in stone for eternity. I imagine the insects do not care one bit what we think they are. They know what to do.

Wasps are Not Bees

Many people tend to group everything that flies and can sting under the name of bees.  However, we know that many other “non-bee” insects fly and sting. 

Members of the wasp and hornet families are the first to come to mind. Wasps are members of the class Insecta too. Yet, wasps are very different than bees. Bees fly to gather pollen and nectar while wasps are predators that hunt other insects.

Let’s face it, sometimes scientific terms can get really confusing to those of us who do not use it in our everyday lives. Hornets are important insects but they also prey on honey bees.

Yet, one common sight in my area is known as the bald-faced hornet. However, this “hornet” is not a true hornet but rather a type of wasp.

Is a Bee a Bug?

Another term we often hear in reference to honey bees is the word bug. Now, that we have learned more about scientific classification, we must consider is a bee a bug?

No, actually bees are not  true bugs.  Insects that are true bugs belong to the Order Hemiptera – while honey bees are in the order Hymenoptera. Why the split at this level?

One of the major differences between bugs and bees is the structure of their mouth parts.  Bees have mouth parts that are designed to suck up and drink liquid food. Honey bees collect plant nectar to make honey.

Bugs have mouth parts that are designed to tear and puncture.  Aphids are bugs that feed on plant juices.  But, they must puncture the plant wall to get to the fluid.

Bees are classified as insects because they fit the criteria required for that scientific classification. Interestingly, our honey bees do not fit into some of the common groups that one would think.

If you want to learn more about insects in your area, I suggest The Bees in Your Backyard – my copy has come in handy many times. Sometimes, I am curious about an insect that I find in the garden.

There you have it. A bee is an insect but a bee is not a bug. With over 900,000 different types of insects in the world, we only have 899,999 more to learn about. Every bug is an insect but not every insect is a bug.

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