How to tell bees from wasps and flies

Mason bee

This mason bee could easily be mistaken for a fly.

It’s important to know the difference between bees, wasps and flies.

Some people panic and kill beneficial insects. That’s a problem, because:

  • More than half of native bee species in North America are declining and almost one-quarter are at risk of extinction. The western bumblebee (look for the cute white bum), for example, is at risk of extinction.
  • We rely on managed honeybees and the 20,000-plus species of wild bees. They help plants reproduce, create berries and seeds for wildlife, and pollinate about one-third of the food we eat!
  • Flies and wasps are part of nature’s cleaning crew. Some are pollinators and eat pests. (Some flies and wasps become pests when their numbers increase in urban areas.)
  • Native bees rarely sting people and almost never become “pesky.”
  • Wasps eat aphids!
  • We need these critters.

Ten clues to identifying bees, wasps and flies

  • It’s probably a bee! Male bumblebees even have moustaches. Wasps and flies have antennae lower on the face.

  • It’s a fly or a wasp. Bees are vegetarians. They eat pollen and nectar from flowers. They’re not interested in what you’re barbecuing.

  • Likely a wasp (e.g., a yellow jacket or paper wasp). Wasps are carnivores — they eat meat, aphids and caterpillars.

  • Probably a bee! A wasp is more likely to be under leaves or flowers hunting for aphids.

  • If it has a long, streamlined body with a thin “waist” it’s likely a wasp. Bees are chubby. Native bees don’t sting unless they become trapped in clothing or you disturb a nest. Even then, most won’t sting.

  • It’s a wasp.

  • It’s a bee. Wasps and flies don’t carry pollen.

  • Probably a fly. Wasps and bees have four wings, two on each side.

  • It’s a fly. (Pay attention: Some flies are bumblebee mimics!)

  • Probably a wasp. But it can’t sting! What looks like a stinger is an ovipositor, used to deposit eggs. Bee and wasp stingers evolved from ovipositors.

Tricks and tips to tell bee species apart

Honeybee

Honeybees have an amber and black striped abdomen (versus yellow) and a long, narrow body. They have pollen sacs on their thighs and “hairy” eyes.

Photo: Pixabay via Pexels

Bumblebee

Bumblebees have a striped abdomen and large, fuzzy body. They have pollen sacs on their thighs and are cute — males even have moustaches!

Photo: Matthias Zomer via Pexels

Hairy belly bee

Hairy belly bees have a dark-coloured abdomen and thorax and a round body. They carry pollen under their belly. (E.g., blue orchard mason bees, leaf cutter bees and resin)

Photo: Christa R. via Flickr

Mining bee

Mining bees have a dark abdomen and thorax and range a lot in size. They carry pollen up the entire leg, not just the thigh. (They wear pollen pants!)

Photo: Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge via Flickr

Thanks Lora Morandin, Pollinator Partnership; Elizabeth Elle, Simon Fraser University; and Cameron Cartiere, Border Free Bees who helped sort out the buzz from the sting from the pesky.