Classifying Bee Species

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Classifying Bee Species

There are lots of bee-like insects buzzing around your backyard. Here are some tips to help you classify some of the bee species nearest you. 

By Judy Burris and Wayne Richards

Tiny insects are living extraordinary lives right in your backyard. With up-close photography and personal field notes, The Secret Lives of Backyard Bugs (Storey Publishing, 2011) by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards reveals an amazing world that many of us never see. This thrilling glimpse into the activities going on in every backyard will surprise and captivate nature lovers of all ages.  

Buy this book from the GRIT store: The Secret Lives of Backyard Bugs.

Classifying Bee Species

Order: Hymenoptera 

Bees get a lot more respect than wasps, probably because they help humans more directly, providing honey and beeswax. They’re industrious, too, working all day to gather nectar and pollen, using their long, complex tongue (called a proboscis) to reach into flowers.

The basic life cycles of bees have some similarities to those of wasps: the queen forms or builds a nest, lays eggs, cares for the first larvae herself until adult workers can take over, and then spends the rest of the summer laying additional eggs. Some of her female offspring become new queens, overwintering in a protected spot, while her male offspring mate and then die. Honeybees have a slightly different life cycle, as the queens live for two or three years and the colony does not disband in the autumn, but instead can continue indefinitely.


Sweat Bee 

Although their attraction to human sweat can make them a nuisance, sweat bees like this one are beneficial pollinators.


Bee Collecting Pollen 

Only female bees collect pollen. They have “baskets” on their hind legs or hair underneath their abdomen for pollen collection.



Though most bees are solitary, honeybees and bumblebees are social, living in large colonies where they produce and store honey. Social bees are more likely to sting, usually in defense of the colony.

Bee or Wasp?  

Bees and wasps have similar life-cycles and can both sting you, but they have appreciable differences too. One major difference is that bees often produce honey in their nests, while wasps are predators and do not produce honey. Here are some key physical differences.



Bees are robust, with rounder bodies than wasps. Notice how thick this bumblebee’s body is.

Bees are fuzzy, with hair covering their legs and body. Their legs are flattened for gathering pollen.



Wasps are slender and smooth-bodied with a skinny waist.

Their legs are thin and hairless.

Take a look at more cool insects:

The American Copper Butterfly
Discovering Your Backyard Bugs 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Secret Lives of Backyard Bugs by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards and published by Storey Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Secret Lives of Backyard Bugs.

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