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The 11 Types of Bees You Should Know

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Nov 27, 2019 3:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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There are thousands of types of bees around the world which can make learning about them or trying to identify a particular bee tough. We’re here to help! Read this guide to learn about the 11 most important types of bees to know, including bumblebees, honey bees, and carpenter bees. We also discuss how bees differ from other insects (including how you can tell types of bees and wasps apart) and the three tips you should follow to make identifying bees easier.

 

Bee Definition: What Makes a Bee a Bee?

There are over 16,000 species of bees, but what separates bees from other types of animals? Bees are insects, and all insects share the following characteristics:

  • An exoskeleton (a hard covering on the outside of their body)
  • Three main body parts: head, thorax, abdomen
  • A pair of antennae on top of their head
  • Three pairs of jointed legs
  • Compound eyes

Bees all fall within the superfamily Apoidea, which also includes wasps. Not all bees make honey, have stingers, or are black and yellow. So what do bees have in common? All bees, in addition to having the general insect characteristics listed above, have:

  • Three pairs of simple eyes, in addition to their compound eyes
  • Abdomens with nine segments, the last of which is modified to contain a stinger
  • A thorax with three segments, and each segment has a pair of legs
  • A pair of membranous wings behind the second segment of the thorax
  • Mouths with both a proboscis (for sucking up nectar) and a mandible (for chewing food)
  • Jointed antennae with 12 or 13 segments, which contain receptors that allow bees to smell, taste, and touch, as well as short hairs that detect air movement

How are bees different than wasps (such as yellow jackets and hornets)? Many people confuse honey bees with yellow jackets, as they both have thin bodies with black and yellow stripes, but there are some key differences between these two types of insects. You likely have already heard about one difference: bees can only sting a victim once (they die soon afterwards), while a single wasp can sting multiple times. When a bee stings a victim, its barbed stinger remains in the victim as the bee flies away, which pulls out the bee’s digestive tract, resulting in the bee’s death. So stinging is only a defense of last resort! Wasp stingers aren’t barbed and stay attached to the wasp, so they can sting multiple times.

Additionally, bees often have a coating of fuzzy hair, which they use to collect pollen. You can often see pollen collected on their backs or legs. Wasps never have this long hair and look shinier than bees. Wasps also have narrower abdomens and more tapered bodies so they can move around faster. Also, because bees typically feed on pollen while wasps feed on nectar, if there’s a yellow and black insect buzzing around your soda or food, it’s almost always a wasp, as sugary liquids are their major food source. Wasps also tend to be more aggressive than most bees. Bees often take the blame for when wasps annoy or sting people, but most bee species are actually focused much more on nearby flowers than any people in the area.

 

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A yellow jacket on the left and a honey bee on the right.

 

The 11 Different Kinds of Bees You Should Know

Of the thousands of bee species, there are several that are most common and have the biggest impact on humans. Below are 11 key bee types. For each, we include the genus (or the family if the bee type contains multiple genera), whether it’s a social or solitary type of bee, if it stings, what it looks like, and its habits.

 

Africanized Honey Bees

  • Genus: Apis

  • Social or solitary: Social

  • Sting?: Yes, and can be highly aggressive

  • Description: Extremely similar to regular honey bees. A thin, golden-brown body with black abdominal stripes.

  • Habits: Africanized honey bees, sometimes called killer bees, were created when scientists in Brazil bred different bees and created an unusually aggressive species, which then escaped and entered the wild. They are highly aggressive and are known to attack people who are dozens of meters from their colony. Victims can end up being stung hundreds of times, sometimes causing shock or even death. Africanized honey bees can also take over colonies of other bee species by executing the queen and forcing the original bees to abandon the site. Unless you’re a bee expert, it’s almost impossible to tell Africanized honey bees from honey bees just by looking at a specimen. The clearest difference is their behavior. Honey bees are docile, while Africanized honey bees are often aggressive. If you see a hive you think might belong to Africanized honey bees, avoid the area and consider contacting a pest specialist.

 

Bumblebees

  • Genus: Bombus

  • Social or solitary: Social

  • Sting?: Rarely

  • Description: Fat and furry, but slightly smaller than similar-looking carpenter bees. The furry “hair” they’re covered with is called setae.

  • Habits: These pollinators live in nests that are often on the ground, and they get their name from the noise they make when buzzing inside a flower. Bumblebees are second only to honey bees in terms of their pollinating abilities. They are non-aggressive and live in colonies of a couple dozen bees. When their nest is threatened, they will emit a loud buzzing sound to try to scare off any intruders, and they’re very reluctant to sting.

 

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A bumblebee pollinating a flower

 

Carpenter Bees

  • Genus: Xylocopa

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: Rarely, and only females can sting

  • Description: Large, fat bodies that are covered in hair. They look similar to bumblebees but are darker in color, sometimes close to black, and don’t have hair on their abdomens.

  • Habits: Carpenter bees, sometimes known as wood bees, rarely sting, but many people still don’t welcome the sight of them due to their habit of boring into wood and depositing their eggs in the holes they create. They are less likely to damage painted or sealed wood. When a female carpenter bee lays her eggs, she lays the female eggs first, then the male eggs. The newly-hatched bees exit the hole one-by-one, and since the males were born closer to the opening, they exit first and are ready to mate with the females when they emerge.

 

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A carpenter bee

 

Honey Bees

  • Genus: Apis

  • Social or solitary: Social

  • Sting?: Rarely

  • Description: A thin, golden-brown body with black abdominal stripes. Look similar to wasps.

  • Habits: There are over 40 species of honey bees, and all share three key characteristics: they produce wax combs (honeycombs), they live in a colony (sometimes with up to 80,000 bees!) with a queen, and, most famously, they produce honey. The western honey bee, Apis mellifera, is the most widely-spread and domesticated bee species in the world. Honey bees generate billions of dollars of revenue every year in the United States alone. They can sometimes be confused with wasps because they have a similar thin body, but honey bees are fuzzier and not as thin as wasps.

 

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A swarm of honey bees

 

Leafcutter Bees

  • Genus: Megachile

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: Only in extreme circumstances, such as when they are roughly handled

  • Description: Black with white hair on their thorax and bottom of their abdomen. They also have very large jaws for their body size.

  • Habits: Leafcutter bees lay their eggs in hollow stems or twigs and seal the opening of the nest with pieces of leaves. Their large heads and jaws help them cut leaf pieces they need to seal their nests.

 

Long-Horned Bees

  • Genus: Eucera

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: No

  • Description: About 11-18mm long and hairy, ranging in color from red to gray. Males have extremely long antennae, sometimes longer than the length of their bodies.

  • Habits: These types of bees get their name from the very long antennae males have (females have regular-length antennae). The antennae give the males a better sense of smell and taste, and they are also used to attract females. These bees nest on the ground, typically in areas high in sand or clay.

 

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A male long-horned bee

 

Mason Bees

  • Genus: Osmia

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: Only females, and only in extreme circumstances, such as when roughly handled

  • Description: Small, often with metallic colors of blue, green, and black. They carry pollen on the underside of their abdomens.

  • Habits: Like leafcutter bees, mason bees often lay their eggs in hollow stems or twigs, but they seal the nest with mud (which is how they got their name). They will also regularly visit bee hotels people have made if small holes have been drilled for them.

 

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A mason bee

 

Plasterer Bees

  • Genus: Colletes

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: Rarely

  • Description: About 10-18mm in length, hairy. 

  • Habits: Plasterer bees get their name from the sticky cellophane they make from a gland in their abdomen. They then use the substance to line the walls of their nests. The substance is waterproof and resistant to many fungi and bacteria, which helps protect their home and eggs. They are known to nest in gardens, and their nests appear as small mounds of dirt next to holes in the ground.

 

Stingless Bees

  • Genus: Several, all within family Meliponini

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: No

  • Description: Varies depending on species, but all have very small stingers that are difficult or impossible to see with the naked eye.

  • Habits: Stingless bees are closely related to bumblebees, carpenter bees, and honey bees. They actually do have stingers, but they are very small and aren’t able to sting victims, so they rely on other defense mechanisms, such as dive-bombing intruders or creating a loud buzzing sound. There are over 500 species of stingless bees found around the world. Some species of stingless bees are known to eat meat!

 

Sweat Bees

  • Genus: Several, all within family Halictidae

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: Extremely rare. You basically have to press one to your skin to get it to sting you

  • Description: Small (some as small as 3mm), with thin bodies.

  • Habits: Sweat bees are attracted to perspiration, and if you’re in an area where they live and are sweating heavily, you may find several of them flying close to you or landing on your skin. Don’t worry though, they almost never sting, and when they do, the pain is pretty minor. They typically nest on the ground.

 

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A sweat bee covered in pollen

 

Yellow-Faced Bees

  • Genus: Hylaeus

  • Social or solitary: Solitary

  • Sting?: Rarely

  • Description: Small, no larger than 6mm, with thin bodies. They are known for their bright yellow faces.

  • Habits: These bees are mostly found in Hawaii (they are the only bees native to the islands), and, unlike most bee species, they carry pollen in their crop, rather than on a leg pouch or on their abdomen. They are in the same family as plasterer bees, and they will build nests in hollow stems, rock crevices, or in the ground.

 

Tips for Identifying Bees

Is that insect buzzing around you safe or dangerous? What type of bee is it? Use these three tips to identify different types of bees faster and more easily.

 

#1: Know Which Bees Live in Your Area

The easiest way to quickly narrow down the list of possibilities when trying to identify a bee is to know which bee species live in that area. For example, yellow-faced bees live almost exclusively in Hawaii, so if you’re not on one of the islands, it’s unlikely that whatever you’re observing is a yellow-faced bee. You can get information on bee ranges on sites such as the DNR website for your state, as well as some pest management websites.

 

#2: Focus on Habits, Not Just Appearance

It can be difficult to identify a bee on appearance alone, especially if you can’t get it to stay still long enough or come close enough to get a good look at it. Instead, focus on how the bee is acting. The habits of bees can reveal a lot of information, such as how they feed, how they nest, and if and how they interact with other bees. For example, if a bee is chomping up leaves, it could be a leaf-cutter bee, while large groups of bees are likely one of the social, rather than the solitary, bee types.

 

#3: Look for the Nest

Disclaimer: Don’t go looking for a nest if you think you’re near Africanized honey bees. In fact, if you think you’re near this bee species, really the best thing to do is leave the area quickly. But for other types of bees, the nest can be a key way to identify them. Some bees, such as carpenter bees, nest in wood, while others, such as plasterer bees and long-horned bees, nest in the ground. The nest can also be used to tell bees from wasps, as wasps make distinctive nests from chewed wood that gives them a papery look.

 

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A bee nest in the ground

 

Summary: Different Types of Bees

There are thousands of types of bees around the world, all of which share certain characteristics that separate them from other insect species, such as wasps. No need to try to learn about every type of bee species though! Our guide covered the 12 most important bee types, including types of honey bees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees. Nearly all different kinds of bees are harmless unless they’re harassed or their nest is attacked, and many are beneficial to have around. If you’re trying to identify different kinds of bees, remember to first learn which bees inhabit the area, use habits rather than just appearance, and look for the nest.

 

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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