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.