Was THAT a BEE?

If you are an aspiring bee enthusiast, and find it very difficult to quickly distinguish between the bee, wasp, or fly, this is the lesson for you!

I’ve often been told it is very hard to tell the difference between these insect groups, and I honestly take it for granted that I can quickly ID them, but I do spend hours observing them. These hours of practice made me pretty fast at identifying the bees flying among us. I call it the BEE-dar. I am THAT person; the one who stops mid-sentence because I just saw a bee “over there”. Maybe it’s not your aspiration to be THAT person, but you’d like to know how the heck people like me see it right away. There are some very important ways to tell right away, and I’ve covered them below.

Visits to flowers: Flies, wasps, and bees visit flowers, but not for the same reason.

I have noticed that most bees are very fast and intentional about flying from one flower to the next, stopping only to frantically collect pollen and/or nectar, in the case of females. Male bees will lounge on a flower for some time, sipping nectar, and waiting for lady bees to show up; some even slumber in the flowers at nightfall (Peponapis-squash bees-males do this). However, bees are not the only insects familiar with the nectar induced energy jolt, and not the only ones visiting flowers, so how do I know which visitor is a bee?

Flies and wasps both visit flowers, but not with an agenda to collect food for their young. They visit to get a sip of nectar, for energy, of course. Wasps are also inclined to also collect plant resin, thus you’ll often find them walking the stems of plants more frequently than sipping nectar. This may also entail hunting for insects along the stem to feed their young.

I’ve also observed flies sipping nectar, and then lounging for a bit, for as long as there is no disturbance. A bee would never lounge around for long; they are always working.

These tips are still not quite enough to effectively distinguish between these insect groups.

Distinguishing Physical Characteristics: 5 key differences are dead giveaways.

  1. Bees are often the hairy ones of the three insects, whereas most flies are not (though there are some hairy species), and wasps appear bald compared to bees. Bees use their hair to collect pollen, thus you’ll often see pollen packed onto some part of the bee’s body (legs or underside of the abdomen).
  2. Bees have long and straight, or straight with an elbow bent downward, whereas flies have short stubby antennae, and wasps have long antennae with curves at the tips.
  3. The eyes are different. Flies have large eyes that take up a large portion of their heads. Bees and wasps both have large compound eyes, but they don’t take up quite as much space on their heads as the eyes of the fly.
  4. Body shape varies. Flies body segments seem to flow into each other, rather than section off as a bee and wasp bodies do, though they are segmented. Wasps have spindly bodies that taper to a very narrow connection between the thorax and abdomen. Wasps also have long, gangly legs. 
  5. Wings are the final physical characteristics worth noting. Wasps and bees both have four wings-two forewings (front) and two hindwings (back). Flies, however, only have two functional wings. 

Now, for the visual studies. See the photographs below, all mine, of course. If I am going to spend hours stalking insects, it might as well amount to beautiful photographs for you to enjoy!

Take a look at the bees below:

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Make note of all the hairy bodies, and in some cases, loads of pollen on the bodies.

Take a look at these flies:

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Make note of the short antennae; the most important distinguishing characteristic.

Check out this wasp:

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Make note of the curly tips of the antennae, and lack of hair on the body. Still quite beautiful in her own right.

This brings us to the end of our lesson. I implore you to practice in your yard, and follow on Instagram, as I will be posting quiz photographs for you to continue studying. I think this will be so much fun! Thank you all for joining the movement!

Jessica