The Bee Basics
I thought a great way to celebrate World Bee Day would be to teach some of the basics on bee identification. Although a little broad, I'm hoping this quick guide will help you recognise some of the bees visiting your gardens, across the globe!
A quick note on taxonomy
As with plants, insects are categorised in taxonomic groups. By taxonomy, we mean classifying things in relation to their key traits and similarities. We name animals and plants using Latin as it's a universal language.
This avoids confusion and keeps us on the same page when discussing a plant or animal. Especially when those having the conversation are on different continents, and speak completely different languages!
Here’s one example of bee classification:
- Apidae - Is the largest family of bees.
- Bombus- Is a genus found in the family Apidae - also known as the Bumblebees.
- Bombus hypnorum is one species found in the Bombus genus, otherwise known as the Tree Bumblebee!
In this article, I've stuck to talking about bee genera, as distinguishing species can be really challenging!
In some cases, bee experts need to observe bees beneath a microscope or perform a dissection to identify it to the species level accurately.
When you first see a bee, try and pay attention to the thorax and abdomen. The amount of hair, it's location on the body and colour can help you to narrow down the species. The fuzzy body of a bumblebee helps distinguish it from other genera!
The legs alone can provide a wealth of information, too. For example, not all bees will have pollen baskets! Additionally, different groups have variable amounts of hair on the legs.
Now we've brushed through the first few pointers, let me introduce to you the common bees that you may see in your garden.
1. Honey Bee - Apis spp.
Us humans have domesticated honeybees for one main reason, honey! When a colony of bees gets too big, the existing queen leaves the hive with roughly half the workers. This new swarm then leaves to start a new colony!
Rough Size: 1-2cm.
Key Characteristics: Smooth, amber-striped; or black-brown, shiny abdomens. They have some golden-brown hair on the thorax and pollen baskets on the very back legs. When full, they appear like bright yellow swellings on the insects' 'thighs'.
Not to be confused with: Leafcutter Bees - generally, these are broader and hairier when compared with Honey Bees.
When to see: spring to autumn
Nesting: In the wild, they're aerial nesters. Preferred habitats include the hollow parts of trees! Domestic Honey Bees are kept in beehives.
2. Leafcutter Bee - Megachile spp.
Leafcutter Bees can easily be mistaken for Honey Bees; however, both live very different lifestyles! Leafcutter Bees are solitary, so unlike Honey Bees, a female bee will tend to larvae alone. They build nests in hollow structures, using plant materials such as leaves or petals to construct nests.
Rough Size: 1-2cm
Identify: Hairy bees with a thick, dense arrangement of hair under the abdomen. This hair is lit up with brightly coloured pollen depending on the flowers they've visited. They possess large jaws which they used to cut up bits of leaf for their nests.
Not to confuse with: Honey Bees are less hairy and have pollen baskets.
When to see: Late spring and summer
Nesting: In crevices, hollow plant stems such as bamboo and bee hotels.
3. Wool Carder Bee or Potter Bee - Anthidium spp.
Carder Bees are sometimes called Potter Bees. They're close relatives of the Leafcutter Bees and use hairs under the abdomen to collect pollen. They use foraged materials, including plant fibres and mud to construct nests. Females can sometimes be seen scraping away at 'hairy' plants, like Borage!
Rough Size: 2cm
Identify: They're broad and robust insects. Identify them using the bold, yellow, abdominal spots.
Not to confuse with: Wasps, which are more slender in shape.
When to see: Late spring and summer
Nesting: In pre-existing, natural or humanmade cavities, bee hotels.
4. Masked Bees - Hylaeus spp.
Sometimes called yellow masked bees, Hylaeus spp. are named after the characteristic markings on the face! They're pretty slender and are often confused with wasps. They store pollen in a part of the digestive system, which is sometimes called the crop or the honey stomach.
Rough Size: 5-10mm
Identify: Small to medium-sized and matte black. They have characteristic yellow or white markings on the face. Sometimes, they have markings on the legs and body too.
Not to be confused with: Wasps
When to see: Summer
Nesting: Hollow twigs and stems, small crevices in homes, walls or bee hotels.
5. Small Carpenter Bees - Ceratina spp.
Small Carpenter Bees have a worldwide distribution but are extremely rare in the UK. They're referred to as 'small' because most of them are less than 1cm in size! They're a solitary bee, with most preferring to nest in piths, stems or hollow twigs.
Rough Size: under 1cm
Identify: Tiny, metallic, and iridescent black, blue or green. Some have yellow or white markings on the face, legs and lateral thorax.
Not to be confused with: Flies!
Nesting: In piths, stems or hollow twigs.
6. Mason Bee - Osmia spp.
An extremely diverse group so they can be difficult to identify at times. A well-known UK species is the Red Mason Bee. Mason bees are pretty docile and rarely sting. They do lots of foraging trips in a day, meaning they'll pollinate a lot of plants, which makes them popular with farmers and orchard owners around the world.
Rough Size: 1cm
Identify: Typically smaller and darker than Honey Bees. They have tufts of hair below the abdomen for loading pollen. Some are completely covered in fur, whereas other species are a beautiful iridescent blue!
When to see: Early spring
Nesting: In stone walls, natural or humanmade cavities and bee hotels.
7. Bumblebees - Bombus spp.
There are roughly 25 known Bombus species in the UK and 40 in the USA. They survive best in temperate regions, so are absent from most of Africa. Most of them are social, with nests containing hundreds of worker bees and a queen. Darwin called them "humble-bees" because of the loud, droning buzz they make when flying!
Rough Size: 1-3cm
Identify: Distinguished from other bees by their hairy bodies and pollen baskets.
Not to be confused with: Cuckoo Bees - convincing bumble mimics that lack pollen baskets.
When to see: Early spring through to late summer.
Nesting: Old mice nests, rabbit warrens, empty bird boxes, deadwood and tree cavities.
8. Large Carpenter Bees - Xylocopa spp.
Large Carpenters are large solitary bees. They have similar lifestyles to Small Carpenter Bees; however, will they'll will nest in deadwood. They're generalist pollinators, so will visit many kinds of flowers when foraging. These bees are rare in the UK, but one species has been recorded on a few occasions.
Rough Size: 2- 3cm
Identify: Shiny black bees and sometimes iridescent under the sun. Some have coloured hair on the thorax, but hair is absent on the abdomen.
Not to be confused with: Bumblebees, which have hair all over the body.
When to see: Early spring to autumn
Nesting: In deadwood, sometimes nesting in human-made wooden structures!
9. Mining Bee - Andrena spp.
Mining Bees are a large genus of solitary bees, with some species nesting communally. They'll tunnel into loose, sandy or silty soils to build nests. It's always a pleasure watching them emerge from the ground in the spring! They're a tricky group to distinguish at the species level.
Rough Size: 1cm
Identify: Mining bees are black-brown, slender bees. Some have thin, pale abdominal bands of hair on the abdomen; other species are hairless and shiny. The very back legs are covered in long hairs for pollen collection.
Not to be confused with: Honey Bees. Mining Bees don't have pollen baskets.
When to see: Early spring to summer.
Nesting: Lawns, playing fields, slopes, cliff faces.
10. Lasioglossum spp.
A large and diverse bee genus, some are dull in complexion, whereas others a dazzling metallic black, green, purple and blue! They're generalist pollinators, so will visit a wide variety of plants to forage nectar and pollen.
Rough Size: 2mm- 1cm
Identify: Some are broad-bodied, but most are small, slender and fly-like, with thin bands of hair on the abdomen.
Not to be confused with: Some of the mining bees.
When to see: Early spring through till summer.
Nesting: Most are ground-nesting bees, although some will nest in deadwood.
I hope this has given you some insight into the incredibly complex and intriguing life of bees!
As with everything, practice makes perfect! My best advice would be to sit, relax and watch the pollinators bumble about the garden. I think this is one of the best ways to learn!
Take a photo and show us what you find! You can use the hashtags #wildlifeID #beeID #beehunt or #worldbeeday if you need a helping hand at ID, or just want to share your garden helpers with the community.
Happy World Bee Day!