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Is it a honey bee or a bumble bee?

Bumble bees and honey bees are frequently confused and, indeed, they have a lot in common. Both are large, as far as bees go, both are found throughout North America, and the females of both types carry pollen in corbiculae, also known as pollen baskets.

But before you can decide if your bee is one or the other, you have to eliminate the other 4000 species that live in North America. But that is fairly easy: of all the bees found in Canada and the US, only the bumble bees and the honey bees have pollen baskets.

Many other species of bee carry pollen on their rear legs in patches of hair called scopas. But the pollen in a scopa and the pollen in a pollen basket looks very different. Pollen carried in a pollen basket is packed tightly, and the grains are glued together with nectar forming a dense and shiny ball.

Bumble-bee-with-pollen-pellet
You can see the pollen carried in this bumble bee’s right corbicula. The pellet is compact and shiny.

Pollen carried in a scopa, on the other hand, is airy, light, powdery, and dull rather than shiny. Remember, only females carry pollen. But if you are lucky enough to be examining a female, look carefully to see if she is carrying hard pellets of pollen. If she is, she is either a bumble bee or a honey bee. Good, we’re getting there.

Fluffy-pollen-in-scopa
This is neither a bumble bee nor a honey bee. The pollen on the right rear leg is carried in a scopa, not a corbicula. The pollen remains soft, fluffy, and loose.

In North America there is only one species of honey bee, while there are about 40 species of bumble bee. That means that the honey bees you see will be more uniform than the bumble bees. Honey bees have narrow stripes on their abdomen that vary in color from yellow and gold to tan, brown, gray, or black. See the narrow bands on the honey bee abdomens below.

Honey-bee-abdomens
Honey bees have narrow stripes on their abdomens which are yellow, gold, tan, brown, gray, or black.

Bumble bees have wide bands of color that range from black to orange, tan, yellow, and white, and the bands start at the head and go all the way back. The different species of bumble bee have different colors and they are different sizes as well. Some are quite large, some much smaller.

Both bumble bees and honey bees have hair, but bumble bees are robustly hairy: scary hairy. The hairs cover most parts of the bee from the head to the tip of the abdomen. They look bundled up, ready for a weekend on the slopes.

Hairy-bumble-bee
Bumble bees are hairy from top to bottom.

The visible hairs on a honey bee are mostly at the front of the body. The abdomen has hairs too, but they are scant compared to those on a bumble bee.

Although the hair and coloring are the most obvious differences, there are others:

    • Honey bees (at least the females) have a much more pointed abdomen than bumble bees. Although a male honey bee has a rounded abdomen, you will rarely see one outside of the hive.
    • Honey bees have an obvious wasp-waist, while bumble bees are thicker through the middle.
    • The veination of the wings is different. Actually, the pattern of wing veins is commonly used to identify various bees. A particular cell in the forewing called the marginal cell is easy to identify in the honey bee. It is long, smooth, and curved like a sausage. The marginal cell in a bumble bee wing is shorter and irregular, with a wide end and a narrower end.
Honey-bee-abdomen
A honey bee has a wasp waist and pointed abdomen.
Bumble-bee-on-blackberry
A bumble bee is more blocky in shape.
Honey-bee-marginal-cell
The marginal cell in the honey bee forewing is smooth, long, and curved.
Bumble-bee-marginal-cell
The marginal cell in a bumble bee forewing is irregular and much shorter.

If at all possible, try to take a photo of any bee you are trying to identify. Enlarged on the screen, the bees reveal many secrets.

Bumble-bee-blocky-build
Bumble bee with loaded pollen baskets.

All photos and text © Rusty Burlew
HoneyBeeSuite