How to tell the difference between honey bees and bumble bees

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Honey bee on the left, bumble bee on the right. See the difference?

If one taxonomic error is repeated in the media more than any other, it is the inability to distinguish between honey bees, Apis mellifera, and bumble bees, about 250 species in the genus Bombus. Such errors are frustratingly common for insects that should be easy to recognize. Here, for example, is a recent story that mistakes a bumble bee for a honey bee, and here is one that does the opposite. Even the New York Times has stepped in this equivocation.

Both honey bees and bumble bees are among the most abundant flower-visiting insects in the northern hemisphere. How do we tell the difference? I’ve made a chart:

Bumble bees vary greatly in size, but they tend to be furry and relatively pudgy. These two bees are sisters from the same nest.
Honey bees are slender and more wasp-like in appearance, bearing a stronger, more obvious pattern of stripes.

Clear?

95 thoughts on “How to tell the difference between honey bees and bumble bees”

  1. When I was a child, back in France, I used to think that the honey bee was the female, and the bumble bee was the male. This was most probably because a honey bee in French (“une abeille”) is the feminine gender and the bumble bee (“un bourdon”) is the masculine gender….

  2. if i wasn’t so lazy, i’d make an ento chart similar to “how americans view the world” on facebook.

    it would be something like:

    if it flies within 25′ of you while you’re eating: it’s a wasp, RUN!
    if it flies within 25′ of you while you’re not eating: it’s a mosquito, start complaining!
    if it runs on the ground: it’s a cockroach, KILL IT!
    if it has big legs: it’s a spider, KILL IT!

      1. Yeah well youre the fucking bitch who’s using “lol” as an actual thing to say so who’s the real idiot here (p.s. its you)

      2. Well don’t you sound like a pretentious condescending prick. Such generalizations make you sound like you are far FAR from the brightest crayon in the box, my friend. Good luck in life- I have a feeling it is or is going to be quite a struggle for you.

      3. Why would you think Americans aren’t bright? Americans are immigrants from ALL countries, which one are you from? Not a very bright comment, this is from a very proud American whose families came from Ireland, Scotland, England and France.

      4. Michael Medeiros

        Apparently neither are you. Btw most of the ppl I know would find the poster of the comment about How Americans label bugs, I’ll informed and ridiculously inaccurate.

          1. hi lani, are u still spporting the honey bee and their survival to the food chain? I am studying their sustainability to our future of food . would welcomr any facts you may have. thanks!

    1. Here in Louisiana there are a few special variations:

      If it’s dark and has no legs, it’s a water moccasin, kill it.
      If it’s any other color and has no legs, it’s some other kind of snake, kill it.
      If it’s a mite, it’s a chigger.
      If it’s a brown spider, it’s a brown recluse.
      If it’s an ant, it’s a fire ant.
      If it’s a fuzzy or spiny caterpillar, it stings.

      (To be fair, the last two are sensible”better safe than sorry” assumptions to teach kids around here.)

      I also get annoyed that people assume there is only one type of mosquito (Louisiana alone has 60+ species).

      1. Mark Fox:
        Pff topic, I know. But I just have to share my peeve:
        People who confuse apes with monkeys.
        If it has a tail, it’s a monkey. No tail, ape.
        Welcome…

      1. Are there types of ants that AREN’T a nuisance? And incidentally, I got “stuck” by an asp ONE TIME. I will NEVER encourage the existence of (or even be tolerant of) ANY fuzzy or spiny caterpillar again. (But I do think it’s very important to be tolerant and even encouraging of “good” snakes, which actually make up about 95% of all the snakes around here)

    2. Just for listen to “The Mosquito Song” by Queens of the Stone Age; you will understand that you are right. I enjoyed your statement on insects.

            1. Remember that the United States has pulled Europe out of two wars, by far the most powerful country, so with that being said.. When you are week you talk smack about the best. And if you don’t agree that is why you are where you are.

        1. I was reading your comment and it looks as if you spelled anonymous the same way “Anonymous”. You and “Anonymous” spelled it correctly, though. 🙂

    3. Well either u don’t know and you’re full of shit or you are that lazy in which case u shouldn’t talk about others

    4. Who are we to kill any creature simply because it frightens or inconveniences our lives? See, all creatures – large and small – are not ours to destroy. They are a gift from Heaven. Be mindful and about harsh or vulgar language simply because you are anonymous is beyond childish and weak minded.

      So, rather than use harsh language or attacks against one another may I suggest you look in the mirror and laugh at your own shortcomings, weaknesses and flaws?

    5. Not just spiders have big legs. And many spiders are beneficial to their environments & most North American species are nonvenomous.
      That being said, I didn’t know that bumbles were a different type of species than honey bees. Different genus even?!
      Anyway I firmly believe that bees are a good thing & I’m glad to find out that lots of hobby bee keepers are cropping up in different places. Bees are starting to come back, & its largely due to smaller bee farms (e. g. hobby bee keepers). It’s easier to carefully tend smaller numbers of bees than larger numbers.

  3. Nice.

    1. Yes, biological errors abound. I’ve heard some seriously grievous ones even on smart shows, like West Wing (some doozies, there). They know policy & politics & history, but wow were they weak re: the natural world.

    Even Will Shortz erroneously corrected a caller who was participating in the Puzzlemaster thing on the radio years ago: the guy was supposed to name animals you might see in a zoo with names that start with particular letters. I seem to recall that for the letter “b” he said bluejay. Will said No, a bird is not an animal. My husband and I immediately looked at one another, shocked, wordless, eyes huge. Will Shortz? Wrong?? And a bird, then, is what? Vegetable? Mineral?

    I FREQUENTLY hear people conflating “mammal” with “animal.” Makes me nuts.

    2. Another thing one might add to your chart: pain from stings. Tho’ I’ve only been stung by one bumblebee and several honeybees, the bumblebee hurt WAYYY more. FYI.

    3. AND, another great thing is that in the (mainland??) USA, all bumblebees (last I heard) you see are native, and all honey bees are not. (I realize this is not useful in identification, but is important to me, and happy news for a conservation biologist) =)

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Off topic, I know. Still I have to share my peeve:
      Folk who confuse apes with monkeys.
      If it has no tail, it is NOT a monkey people.

  4. You need to know the difference if you want to pet bumblebees! (yes, my daughter, granddaughter and I are all bumblebee petters)

  5. Think about the good ol’ days when every other kid had caught butterflies and beetles and collected flowers, at least in school. I bet taxonomic fails wouldnt be as common back then, at least not as unnoticed and widespread.
    It baffles me why the current generations (which I’m a part of) have exchanged the interest of the natural world with that of celebrity news and marketed drama. Guess it comes down to money in the end.

  6. Looks like it may be Bombus impatiens to me, at least the sisters, but bumblebees do tend to look like each other, although never like a honeybee. Well, except to writers who don’t really care (and their layers of uncaring editors). You’ve got to realise that these people write for newspapers and the like – what they write is ephemeral. It will be recycled, wrapped around fish, or otherwise soon be gone. It probably is not worth their effort to care what the picture is of as long as it looks good.

  7. I understand that there is a guy who murders and buries people who call yellow jackets and wasps “bees”. I’m just sayin’. Don’t go digging in my back yard.

  8. To tie two of your blog posts together, I am afraid that the episode 5 of QI got the honey bee / bumble bee mixed up.

  9. Hi Alex,

    I love your site, esp. your photos. (I’ve just started macro photography.) I’m sure my kids will love them, too, when I show them to the class next week as our theme is living things. I’m starting with insects on Tuesday.

    Thanks again for your site. It’s really very helpful.

    Lina

  10. Wow, thanks! This helped me get rid of the block I’ve been having on my project. And on a side note, while I agree some Americans are stupid, not all of them are. Sorry, just sticking up for my country.

    1. Karen Peterson-Ruiz

      It’s funny; I’m trolling this site to see if bumble bees and honey bees compete for realty because I have moved to N FL and all I see are bumble bees. There is no discussion there; just at an entire countries intelligence. Go figure.
      P.s. roaches are gross…sue me!

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  16. Until I read this article and the columns you linked to, I had no idea that bumblebee hives were commercially available. That makes we wonder if we could save or increase numbers of declining or rare bumblebee species through commercial rearing. At the same time, it also raises my concern that we could hasten the decline of native bumblebees by introducing commercially raised bumblebees to areas where they out-compete or introduce diseases to the native bees of an area. I’m glad to note that some western states are aware of this issue and limit or prevent the introduction of non-native commercially raised bumblebees.

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  18. Just happened upon “How to tell the difference between honey bees and bumble bees”.
    REALLY!?!?!? I had no idea that there are adults that don’t know the difference…Is this one of those “prank” websites?

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  21. What’s the difference when it comes to how they eat and where they live? I know a lot about honeybees, I work on a farm that has it’s own apiary, but I know nothing about pretty much any other bee. Do bumbles also collect nectar and pollen and fly back to a hive? Are they just on the flowers to eat what they find for survival? Do they also live with 50,000 others and protect their lineage over all else? Do they make honey? From the “honeybee” name, I would draw they are the only bee to produce honey, but again, I don’t know anything about other bees.

  22. Was about to take down the hummingbird feeder to wash and refill, but bumblebee was busy trying to drain it. While it was on it, I tipped the feeder in its’ direction to give it more. (Refill in the AM.) I don’t mess with them, and they don’t mess with me. Trying to teach the wife, kids, and grand kids about stuff, but the women are crazy afraid of anything outside. Too sad… About time for my skeeter eatin’ buddies to come out… the bats. Good night to you all.

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  24. I am a photographer out of Winnipeg Manitoba Canada.I am in love with photography! I have always been “that person” with a camera attached to me at all times, ever since I was a little girl for as long as I can remember. Now I want to share my love and passion with others and make them feel special and beautiful.

  25. Fascinating. I came on here to read about bees, but end up reading comments from some obviously stupid and rude people. Definitely lower life forms from the insects, reptiles and arachnids they are discussing.

  26. I came to this site to look up how to safely and “humanely” (?) relocate what I think are rusty-patched bumble bee nests. After reading through all the comments from misidentification of winged insects to the intelligence (or a perceived lack thereof) of my southern neighbours, I am still no closer to finding what I was looking for.

    I have two bumble nests in my backyard in Calgary, Alberta. Ordinarily I would “live and let live” with the bees as they are in decline and I recognize the need for the great pollinators. However, both nests are in very inconvenient locations. One nest is just under my shaded concrete patio (too close for comfort there) and the other is under the cement block at my backyard gate leading from my yard to the school field (and the really great playground) behind us. Neither of these nests can be easily avoided if I want to use my yard.

    If anyone knows of a way to “encourage” the bees to relocate, please advise. I don’t want to use my last resort of calling the exterminator.

    1. Bumble bee nests do not relocate easily, and I suspect most attempts to do so would end up killing them. The flight-age bees would simply return to the original nest site as a matter of imprinting, anyway. If you’re sure you cannot tolerate them, I don’t see many alternatives beyond extermination. Personally, I would leave them be unless you’ve seen them actively bothering people. Mere presence does not often lead to stinging incidents.

      Good luck with whatever you chose.

    2. I just read about a device to “trap” carpenter bees; which were for sale on that site. I’ve been looking for something similar for bees under my deck, but they are not carpenter ants. They are fuzzy with yellow on them. I stored some apples under the deck, covering them with old blankets and big quilt. I took off big quilt, and started to remove second blanket when I heard loud buzzing; I saw one yellow bee: I took a brick and crushed it. Two more showed up. I killed those two, thinking that was the end. I started to take other blanket off when I heard more buzzing; I saw three more bees together on ground, beside the tub;
      They buzzed and flew up to be protective, but we’re not aggressive.
      I figure a “trap” device could be created to get the whole colony and relocate in different location, towards back of yard by Apple tree. Something with sweet apples in a jar, maybe a fruit jar, w/ a spout that would close on one end and keep the bees in while at the same time an open one that would allow other bees inside.

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  29. Shelly Simburger

    I am sorry for whoever wrote this article that it has been received with such negativity. Thank you for the article. It was helpful to me.

    1. Shelly? I feel ya!
      Still, I am NOT sorry for her.She, as well as I, know that cripe comes WITH the (open forum) territory. Especially since it takes ALL types to make this world go round. Just think, if it weren’t for those cretins, ‘good’ folk wouldn’t have anything to push back on! We would have no impetus to grow into our best.
      Yup, I’m grateful. Sought info on the dif btwn bumble & honeys, and found it! Has far more value, in my mind, than the squawks of a few malcontents.
      Ijs…
      Sersly tho
      ?

  30. These avatars are phenomenal! Even the most rude, stupid, mean comments have almost no sting if you just look at the avatar and imagine it saying what you’ve read!

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  32. Polar Badgerbeest

    Another way to tell the difference between the two is the structure of their hives. To put it simply, if it’s made of geometrically perfect hexagons, fitting together like a gorgeous artistic mosaic, then it’s a honeybee. If it looks like a bunch of pots just haphazardly stuck together, it’s a bumblebee.

    (To be honest the sight of a bumblebee hive really infuriates me for some reason. It’s like their cousin the honeybee had perfected its art and meticulously assures the perfection of its architecture, while the bumblebee can’t even get its crap together to make a freaking decent hexagon and pretty much just went “Meh, as long as we can lay eggs in this crappy heap it’ll do”. Basically bumblebees are just fat, hairy relatives of honeybees with hardly any artistic talent whatsoever.)

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  34. Jehu the Gileadite!

    Yeah. I gotta step in here, and straighten out some of the comments “HEAR”? There was one comment posted, that made mention of “agreements”, as in agreeing with one another. What I have to offer, is in light of such agreements made? And, broken! And what this has to do with the honeybee, and the bumblebee! The patriarch and father of the children of Jacob, was made to swear an oath, by the father of Syrians, Laban; to a binding oath, in which the two swore that they would not cross over to one another to do each other harm. That was an eternal, and binding oath, between two men, that became the bronze skinned two houses of Israel; and the race of whites, that are today found in America. And all things are coming to a fulfillment of everything under the sun, concerning these two men. Because, that the Syrians represent today, the Assyrian (Germans) and who are also identified with Jacob’s twin brother, Esau!! (As in, “He came, E-sau, He plundered, and conquered!) For the white race was destined to live by the sword, hogging up all things to himself! And to receive their portion in this first world; and in the next, (the immortal one) to be sent out, empty! So with your bickering and your jive talking; you really do entirely, ignore the impending judgments at your doorsteps! For the Lord will whistle for the fly from the uttermost part of the rivers of America, and for the bumblebee that is in the land of Pagan and profane descendants of “E-saw-a Hee-Haw Haw! of Assyrian Germans, out of Russian and Isis “Arabian Serpents” in the east! And why, might you ask? Because of the breaking of this oath, between the white race, (Lebanon), and Israel (Gentiles)! And for the white race’s perpetual hatred for their bronze skinned brothers of Israelites!

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