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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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

The marginal cell of the honey bee wing, formed by the wing veins, is long and sausage-shaped.
The marginal cell of the honey bee wing is long and sausage-shaped. © Rusty Burlew.
Here you can see the rough margins and irregular shape of a bumble bee marginal cell.
Here you can see the rough margins and irregular shape of a bumble bee marginal cell. © Rusty Burlew.
The Andrena marginal cell is shorter and comes to a point on the edge of the wing.
The Andrena marginal cell is shorter and comes to a point on the edge of the wing. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

lloyd seested
Reply

Is that to wit or twit? Sounds like the latter.???????

Rusty
Reply

Oops.

Deborah Corcoran
Reply

Thank you Rusty, you’re right on the money as usual.

Annabella
Reply

I found that information very interesting. Is the marginal cell on the Asian honey bee different from the European honeybee?

Rusty
Reply

Annabella,

Actually, they are very similar. So if you have both in your area, you will have to look at other characters as well.

harold meinster
Reply

Identify a honeybee from other bees is easy. I find it difficult to identify different strains of honeybees. Italian, Russian etc. Any thoughts to make that identification.

Rusty
Reply

Harold,

The real question is whether those strains still exist in the US. Our bees’ genetic lines are very mixed up and the strains have been crossed and recrossed. Some people say that they can’t even be distinguished with DNA analysis, and that honey bees are just raised to be yellow or black. I don’t know, but I think I mostly agree with that.

Vivien Hight
Reply

Thank you, Rusty!! Now I know!

Vivien

Ray
Reply

The individuals alluded to in paras 1 thru 7 should know better than to argue with our Rusty! Spot on factual piece as always Rusty, thank you.

Rusty
Reply

You’re so funny, Ray.

Craig
Reply

I’m a bit surprised at the reaction of the fellow who sent you that picture. It sounds like he knew nothing of the various honey bee “races”. He seems unaware of any breed other than the Italians or a.m. ligustica. I’m guessing he’d found an example of a.m.m. or some other race of European black bee?

Even the carniolans (a.m. carnica) tend to run more brown or grey rather than yellow like the Italians and buckfast. Since carniolans are supposed to be the second most popular race of bees in the US, it seems odd that this person thought all honey bees are yellow.

I think I could understand this if he was from the South but different races are more common in New England.

I’m just confused by his response.

John W. Palmer
Reply

Rusty, thank you for the information. Perhaps at some time you can help us figure out which sub species we have as well. My bees are mutts but they definately do not look like A.m. ligustica, too much black in the abdomens. Some are all black without a hint of yellow. Queens are black or dark reddish orange.

Aylett Apiaries
Reply

Rusty, thank you for the information. Perhaps at some time you can help us figure out which sub species we have as well. My bees are mutts but they definately do not look like A.m. ligustica, too much black in the abdomens. Some are all black without a hint of yellow. Queens are black or dark reddish orange.

Jay
Reply

Does the marginal cell shape make an impact on the honey bearing capacity of a fully laden Asian honey bee as compared with a European Honey bee? Could either carry a coconut by the husk?

Steph Merkle
Reply

Great info, Rusty! Thanks for putting this post together.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Steph! Haven’t heard from you in a while.

Jeffrey Dustin
Reply

How can I tell a Russian bee from an Italian or Italian-Carnolian cross?

Rusty
Reply

DNA analysis is probably your best shot.

Tom Roche
Reply

Excellent article Rusty. Wonderful guide on quickly identifying a honey bee. Many of us use wing morphometry, typically using 30 bees from a hive, to determine the percentage of purity of species of bee in the hive. This indicates the degree of hybridisation of the species of bee in that hive. It’s a very useful aid in selecting donor hives for queen rearing.

MarianA
Reply

Tom,

I’m confused. Are you talking about purity of race or of subspecies? Are you in North America or in a region with Apis cerana? I think the North American native bees would be too far off genetically to hybridize.

Is there a visible difference in wing morphology between our genetic strains of honey bees? Is there a particular structure that you’re looking at? Is there a physical manifestation which correlates to Africanization? (THAT would be quite useful!)

Just curious.

Marian

Pedro
Reply

It’s funny how ‘people in authority’ always seem bent on setting the height of their fall generously. 🙂

Thank you, I will make sure to check marginal cells from now on!

Steph Merkle
Reply

Rusty – I’d love to catch up and get you back in the flow with Countryside, if you have the time!

Rusty
Reply

Steph,

I’ll send you an email.

john wheatley
Reply

Rusty,

Keep up the good work. Your information has been a great help to me for the last few years. It is too bad that there isn’t a statute on the books that makes it a felony to give out stupid bee information. Your “expert” would have been incarcerated long ago.

Rick A - Warner
Reply

rickwar04@msn.com thanks always learning great site.

Debbie
Reply

“Anyone who has kept honey bees for more than about two weeks should be able to identify a honey bee by one forewing alone’ … You don’t really believe that, do you? Good article for identifying bees.

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