How to identify a honey bee using wing veins
Because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, I am obscuring the details in this case of mistaken identity. Still, it’s worth sharing because I don’t want this to happen to you.
Last week someone forwarded an email to me that was being distributed by a person who holds a position of authority in the beekeeping world. This person, who lives in the US, distributed a photo of a dead bee that someone found in a hive. The person in authority wanted to know if anyone else had seen honey bees with similar symptoms in their hives.
I glanced at the photo and instantly saw that the bee surely did have a genetic disorder. In fact, its genes were so disordered they formed a bumble bee instead of a honey bee. Call me old fashioned but I expect a beekeeper—especially one with a title—to be able to recognize a honey bee (or not) when he (or she) sees one.
What if a poultry producer found a dove in his hen house and began asking what was wrong with his weird-looking chicken? How much confidence does that instill? How much depth of knowledge does it demonstrate?
It’s written in the wing veins
Three days later I got another request. This time, a person from New England sent a photo of a bee on a flower and asked me to identify it. I wrote back saying it was a honey bee, Apis mellifera.
He was indignant. He shot back an angry response saying he knew a honey bee when he saw one, and this bee could not be a honey bee because it was black, not yellow.
I don’t have time for this, and I really didn’t care if he believed me or not, but his photo was excellent and clearly showed the wing veins. I told him to compare diagrams of wing veins and come to his own conclusion. Two days later, he conceded that it was indeed a honey bee.
Anyone who has kept honey bees for more than about two weeks should be able to identify a honey bee by one forewing alone. With the exception of a bee with deformed wing virus, the forewing makes a honey bee drop-dead easy to identify. The forewing of Apis is distinctive and unique, and if you live in a place like North America where only one Apis species exists, it is virtually impossible to confuse it with anything else.
Wing veins and cells
The wing veins and the cells they define are important tools for bee identification. Usually, you can narrow a bee down to the genus level by studying the wings. For now, it is hard or impossible to identify down to the species level with wings alone. For example, it is easy to recognize a bumble bee based on wing patterns, but you can’t tell which bumble bee you are seeing without more information.
However, this may be about to change. Facial recognition software has evolved to the point where it can separate identical twins. Entomologists are beginning to use similar software to distinguish bee species based on subtle differences in the length, width, and curvature of the wing veins.
The marginal cell
To prevent embarrassing mistakes, the keepers of honey bees only need to recognize the wings of one species. Furthermore, they only need to recognize the forewing. Furthermore, they only need to recognize the marginal cell. One cell in one wing could prevent all the nonsense in paragraphs one through seven of this post.
So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to recognize the marginal cell of a honey bee forewing. As I said earlier, it is unique and very obvious. To me, it looks like a sausage: long, narrow, and rounded at both ends.
The three photos below show marginal cells. The first one is a honey bee, the second is a bumble bee, and the third is an Andrena. Notice that the honey bee cell is long, narrow, curved, and smooth. In contrast, the bumble bee marginal cell is irregular with “rough” edges. The Andrena marginal cell comes to a point that lies along the edge of the wing, a pattern that is different from the other two.
Wings are durable and reliable
Bee wings are amazingly durable, and often they are intact even when the specimen is dead, moldy, diseased, or partially eaten. The wings are usually the first thing I look at when someone asks, “What bee is this?” because the wings can quickly get you started, if nothing else.
If you are not already looking at wing veins, the first time you identify a honey bee using the forewing alone, I guarantee you will feel like a “real” beekeeper. Try it. The more you know, the funner it gets.
Honey Bee Suite