bee biology

Surprising ways to identify a honey bee like a pro

Some people begin beekeeping without knowing how to identify a honey bee. If you are new to honey bees, here are some tips to help you recognize one.

Not long ago I received a mysterious-looking package in the mail, a small white box with lots of postage. Inside I found a plastic vial wrapped in sheets of newsprint from The Wichita Eagle. The vial was dressed in a yellow sticky note that read, “I found this honey bee on the porch of my hive. Something’s wrong with it, like its genetics are all screwed up. Can you identify what’s ailing this honey bee? Should I be concerned?”

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 159 No 12, December 2019, pp. 1363-1367.

Indeed, the bee’s genetics were all screwed up. In fact, its string of DNA was so scrambled it grew into a bumble bee instead of a honey bee. Should the owner be concerned? I think so because it was the beekeeper’s fourth year of keeping bees. By then, methinks, a beekeeper should be able to identify a honey bee on sight.

It’s not unusual for a beekeeper to get confused

Although this incident may seem unusual, it’s not. I receive many images of things that beekeepers have failed to identify. Last summer, one photo showed five dead and blackened bees that were taken from inside a hive. The beekeeper wanted to know what kind of bees had moved in with his colony. Oddly, the writer said I was the fourth person he’d sent the photos to, and he still had no answer.

The bees in the photo were honey bees, his own no doubt, that were dead. I don’t know what was wrong with them — other than being dead they looked fine — so they may have just been old or worn. But I found it strange that he and the others hadn’t recognized them for honey bees.

Examining the remains to identify bees

During one year, I identified or confirmed fully 24,000 honey bee specimens on iNaturalist. In other words, I’ve seen Apis mellifera suffering all kinds of misadventures. I admit some are hard to read, having been flattened, drowned, chewed, mowed, swatted, regurgitated, and dismembered. Still, if you know the morphology of a honey bee, you can pick it out of the scramble.

Of course, most of the photos on iNaturalist do not come from beekeepers. For every beekeeper that is sometimes confused, there are millions of non-beekeepers who have no idea whatsoever. Either everything is a honey bee — including dragonflies, carpenter ants, and small birds — or nothing is a honey bee — even if it’s living in a hive, looks just like its thousands of companions, and makes honey. Go figure.

Fantasy bees based on cartoons

I think non-beekeepers become confused because of preconceived ideas that arise from cartoons and cereal boxes. Honey bees are glossy yellow with contrasty black stripes, live in spherical hives that hang from tree limbs, and have long stingers that hang out the back. Also, they smile a lot. It seems that the less someone knows, the more apt they are to argue when your identification doesn’t meet their expectations.

Just last week I was called on the carpet for suggesting a photograph showed a honey bee. “You’re wrong! It can’t be a honey bee because it’s black!” The week before, “It’s too hairy to be a honey bee. Please look again.” Early this morning, someone rejected my identification of a carpenter bee saying: “I know for a fact it’s a honey bee because it was pollinating flowers.”

In light of all the confusion, I decided to assemble a few pointers on identifying honey bees that will work whether the bees are healthy or in a very bad way. It’s not that I don’t like receiving packages of decomposing insects in the mail, but maybe I can save someone the trouble.

The arolium is a small sticky pad on the end of the foot between the tarsal claws. It helps the bee walk on smooth or vertical surfaces. Pixabay photo.
The arolium is a small sticky pad on the end of the foot between the tarsal claws. It helps the bee walk on smooth or vertical surfaces. Pixabay photo.

Two rules for identifying bees

A general rule when identifying bees is to base any decision on at least two characters. That said, Apis mellifera are unlike any other bees in North America. They are very similar to other Apis, especially Apis cerana, but as of this writing, no other Apis species live in the New World. That means you can often identify a honey bee using just one character, such as a forewing or a rear leg.  You can base your identification on the pieces you have left without even looking at the squishy bits.

A second rule for identifying bees is to determine sex first. In many bees, the sexes look totally different and, as you know, that is true of honey bees. Many times after declaring a specimen to be “Apis mellifera, male” the person asking for help becomes unhinged. “You’re supposed to be the expert, but even I can see it’s not a honey bee!” For some species, different dichotomous keys are written for each gender, so you can’t even get started without determining the sex. And bees, not subject to modern American legislation, have no choice in the matter.

How to determine bee sex

One way to determine sex in a bee is to count segments. Females have 12 antennal segments (scape, pedicel, and 10 flagellomeres) while males (drones) have 13 (scape, pedicel, and 11 flagellomeres). Alternatively, females have six visible abdominal segments, and males have seven, the rest being tucked out of the way, invisible without dissection.

But there are other clues. If the bee is carrying pollen in an organized way, you’re looking at a female. Bees carry pollen in different places, and where they carry it is extremely helpful to identification. If the pollen is not organized but is dusted randomly over the body, it could be either male or female. Additionally, if the bee has no visible pollen, it could also be either male or female.

For the purpose of determining whether or not something is a honey bee, sexing isn’t always important. On the other hand, if you found something that looks like a honey bee worker — not a drone — yet it has 13 antennal segments, you know it can’t be a honey bee. Right? It has to be a male of some other species.

Often a honey bee abdomen is orange on the first two segments and black on the rest. You can see this color shift even at a distance. Pixabay photo.
Often a honey bee’s abdomen is orange on the first two segments and black on the rest. You can see this color shift even at a distance. Pixabay photo.

Characteristics that help identify honey bees

Honey bees are outliers in the bee world. They are a force to be reckoned with, doing everything in a big way: massive colonies, ginormous foraging areas, boundless collecting ability, and nasty stings. There is no mistaking a honey bee swarm for any other bee aggregation, and you won’t confuse a mason bee condo with a honey bee hive.

Still, when you get right down to it, a bee is a bee is a bee. And when it comes to individuals, it is easy to get them confused. So let’s take a look at some characters that shout Apis mellifera.

The eyes have hairs

Few bee species have hairy eyes. I’ve run into a few in my taxonomic work, but they are not very common. Honey bees have obviously hairy compound eyes and the eyes are large enough to easily see with a camera or a hand lens. In addition, male honey bees (drones) have eyes that meet at the top of the head, very similar to fly eyes. These two characters are not common in the bee world, so they are fairly good indicators of a honey bee.

No tibial spurs

Nearly every species of bee has two tibial spurs on each hind leg. Tibial spurs are found at the apical end of the tibia near the connection to the basitarsus. These spurs aid in digging, whether the bee is digging in the ground or in a cavity. Since honey bees live in wax combs instead of holes, they have no need for hind tibial spurs. Zero. Zilch.

Here is where the two-character rule comes in handy. If your New World bee has hairy eyes and no tibial spurs, it has to be a honey bee. Yes, I know it’s hard to recognize the absence of something, so think of it this way: If your bee does have hind tibial spurs, it’s not a honey bee.

Honey bees have hairy compound eyes and extra-wide rear legs, especially the tibia and basitarsus. © Rusty Burlew.
Honey bees have hairy compound eyes and extra-wide rear legs, especially the tibia and basitarsus. © Rusty Burlew.

Flattened leg segments

When you look at photographs, the flattened hind-leg segments of a honey bee worker are easy to spot. Both the tibia (which holds the corbicula) and the basitarsus (immediately below the tibia) are wide and flat in honey bees. You can also see the pollen press, which is located between the two and is used to squeeze pollen up into the corbicula.

In North America, only bumble bees have similarly flattened leg segments. These shiny areas edged with long, stiff hair are common in corbiculate bees — those species that press nectar-moistened pollen into dense pellets. Besides honey bees and bumble bees, the only other corbiculate bees in North America are the orchid bees introduced into Florida, which are hard to confuse with honey bees due to their shiny metallic coloring and oil-collecting leg pouches. Although stingless bees are corbiculate, they are not found north of Mexico.

Again, using the two-character rule, a bee with flattened leg segments (a visible corbicula) and hairy eyes has to be a honey bee. Bumble bees have flattened legs but no hairy eyes. In addition, bumble bees have rear-leg tibial spurs, while honey bees have none.

Long tongues

Many bees have long tongues. In fact, two of the seven bee families — Apidae and Megachilidae — are collectively known as long-tongued bees. But there is long and there is crazy long. The tongue of an orchid bee is nearly the length of its entire body.

Honey bees have tongues on the short side of the long-tongue spectrum. Nevertheless, if your dead bee has its tongue hanging out, you can get a good idea of its length. If it seems long to you, it probably is.

Although some bees have longer tongues, honey bee tongues are long enough to reach deep into many flowers. Pixabay photo.
Although some bees have longer tongues, honey bee tongues are long enough to reach deep into many flowers. Pixabay photo.

Smooth mandibles

Mandibles come large and small, with multiple teeth and cutting blades, depending on the bee’s lifestyle — Swiss army knives for bees. On the other hand, honey bees have unique spoon-shaped mandibles that are designed for specific services. The back of a honey bee’s mandible has channels that guide brood food from the bee’s glands into a brood cell to feed the young, and the rounded edges protect the comb from damage.

Other bee species do not feed their young progressively the way honey bees do. Instead of feeding liquid food, they leave their young a sweetened pollen ball to chew on. These bees have no need for channelized mandibles with rounded edges, but they have many uses for sharp tools that can cut, saw, chew, tear, and card. Because of its custom design, a honey bee mandible is easy to recognize.

Suction cups for walking

Arolia occur between the tarsal claws of some bees. Arolia are suction cups that help bees walk on walls, ceilings, windows, and teacups. Although not all bees have arolia, honey bees are among those that do.

Other bees, even long-tongued bees like the leafcutters, do not have them. So the presence of an arolium is one of the things you can use when looking for multiple characters. Or, if all the praying mantis left behind was one leg without an arolium, you know it wasn’t one of your girls. At least not this time.

If you look carefully in the upper left corner of the photo, you can see two tibial spurs on the rear leg of this Osmia bee. Honey bees have no rear-leg tibial spurs. Pixabay photo.
If you look carefully in the upper left corner of the photo, you can see two tibial spurs on the rear leg of this Osmia bee. Honey bees have no rear-leg tibial spurs. Pixabay photo.

Color patterns of the abdomen

Sometimes a photo shows just a shadowy figure, but often you can identify a honey bee just by the color pattern. Most of our honey bees are not jet black or blazing yellow, but somewhere in between. Often the color of T1-T2 (the first two visible abdominal segments) is a dull pumpkin color with dark stripes. The pumpkin gradually changes into black in the remaining visible segments. This is a fairly reliable character that can even be seen at a distance.

Habitus or general body shape

Habitus is a biological term referring to the general body build of an organism. Think of it this way: From a distance, you can distinguish a collie from a poodle or a bulldog just by the way it is shaped, the way it stands, and its size. After you’ve worked around honey bees for a time, you can recognize their particular build among a group of random bees.

Likewise, the way an organism moves can give you a clue to its identity. Of course, it has to be alive to move, and this isn’t always the case. But a honey bee goes from flower to flower at a unique speed, often dangling its legs, and approaching a blossom in its own recognizable way. It moves very differently from a frenetic digger bee or a light-footed leafcutter.

Wing veins and the cells they form offer excellent bee identification at the genus level. The wings of honey bees are distinctive, especially the long, sausage-shaped marginal cell and the irregular third submarginal. © Rusty Burlew.
Wing veins and the cells they form offer excellent bee identification at the genus level. The wings of honey bees are distinctive, especially the long, sausage-shaped marginal cell and the irregular third submarginal. © Rusty Burlew.

The sound of the buzz

A honey bee sounds unique as well. If I’m staring through a camera at a bee, I can hear — and often recognize — some of the other species by their sound alone. I might be focusing on a honey bee and hearing a bumble to my left and a wool carder to my right. It’s kind of fun to hear a bee and try to name it. Try it a few times, and you will be surprised at how quickly it becomes second nature.

In wing veins we trust

I’ve saved the best for last. Nothing beats wing veins for fast and reliable bee identification at the genus level. Unfortunately, they can’t help you at the species level. In other words, you can’t tell a common eastern bumble from a brown-belted bumble by wing veins, but you can certainly tell a bumble from a honey bee or a carpenter bee.

As a beekeeper, you should definitely try to memorize the pattern of a honey bee wing because that alone will give you a definitive identification every time, at least here in the Western Hemisphere. In nearly all cases where I’m asked to identify a partial bee, the wing veins are the ticket. Best, they are easy to learn.

The most telling part of a honey bee wing is called the marginal cell. The cell is narrow, ridiculously long, and runs along the forward edge of the forewing. The entire cell is gently curved, and the end furthest away from the body is rounded. To me, it looks like a cartoon sausage.

The second most unusual-looking cell is the third submarginal. Depending on the species, bees have either one, two, or three cells tucked directly beneath the marginal cell, and these are referred to as submarginal cells one, two, and three, with number one being closest to the body. These cells come in different shapes and sizes, but a honey bee’s third submarginal cell is large and irregular and angles away from the marginal cell.

At first glance, it may be difficult to see what this robber fly is eating, but the wing sticking up on the right side of the photo reveals the menu. © Corey Lange.
At first glance, it may be difficult to see what this robber fly is eating, but the wing sticking up on the right side of the photo reveals the menu. © Corey Lange.

Puzzle pieces tell the story

I love identifying bees because I like puzzles and mysteries. To me, it’s fun to figure out what I know versus what I need to know to identify a species. But even if you plan on identifying nothing but honey bees, it pays to know what parts count and which parts you can do without. Before long you will be able to identify a honey bee regardless of whether it is sick, dead, worn, or partial. It’s fun, so give it a try.


A special thanks to Corey Lange for his cool photo of a robber fly dining on a honey bee.

Honey Bee Suite


  • Recently a fellow asked what what breed of bee has a red stripe on it’s head. He saw several mixed in with his hive of honey bees. Took awhile for me to convince him it was a honey bee with a bit of pollen “makeup”.

  • Thanks for this great article! Would you mind if I copy the majority of it to share with the kids in the Pennington County, SD Busy As A Bee 4-H Club? These kids are anxious to learn as much as possible about honey bees. We have our own hive(s) so the kids can get some real hands-on!

    Thanks in advance!

    Tom Allen
    Rapid City, SD

  • Thank you great lesson, I also got a copy of “Bees in your back yard.” Bring me along one lesson at a time. ?????Thanks

  • To learn more I purchased a bee biology book, which was difficult to understand, much less comprehend, but this posting is much better than that … it pretty much covers it. I will print this out and carry it with me to study. Thanks so much!

  • LOL People who ask your opinion, then tell you that you’re wrong.
    Thanks for sharing your Yellow-Stripey-Insect knowledge.

  • Thanks for the great lesson.

    An update: Our 1 out of 4 hives that survived is alive and doing well so far. Checked it this afternoon and gave the girls another pound of last year’s honey (mostly crystallized) so I laid it on its side in the feeder.

    We are anxious to have a hive at the start of the season instead of waiting for the apple pollinators to come visit after they have finished their “paying gig”.

  • Hi everyone,

    In my area, it is the season of swarming. Can anyone tell me the alternative to lemongrass oil so I can use it for swarm traps?

  • Totally off topic, I just read you’ve served as an expert witness in bee sting litigation. Anything you’re allowed to write about? (Supposing, of course, you’re still looking for topics, and not too stressed and/or ill because of pandemic to write. Your state sorta disappeared from our news after NYC, then Connecticut, got hit. Hope you’re okay.)

    • Hi Roberta,

      All’s well on this end, except it seems everything takes longer, like finding creative substitutions for recipes, etc. We’re pretty much holed up here, but I don’t mind.

      The litigation is the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done in relation to beekeeping. But since I’m short-listed as an expert with several attorneys, I prefer to stay mum, hoping to stay on their good side.

      • A) I totally understand.
        B) But, but, but, can’t you just file off the names to protect the guilty?
        C) I’ll just be over here whiny-babying—pay me no mind.
        D) Glad you’re all well. Us too (so far, so good, knock on wood, spit spit). I’ve always been glad I don’t live in a city, but quadruple that now.

  • My neighbor on my right has honey bees. I believe the neighbor received the boxes last year from a home a few lots to my left. Now, I am seeing the bees “bearding” (I think that is the correct term) on a tree in my yard. What should I do?

    • Amanda,

      That sounds like a swarm. You should call the beekeeper so he or she can come and collect them. Alternatively, the swarm will most likely move on after a few hours or a few days.

  • Hi, I’m not knowledgeable on bees at all but google brought me here! I’m in Portland OR, and I made a pea trellis out of spare bamboo my friend had. I’ve noticed bees going in and out of it lately. Should I be worried about bees making a home out of the bamboo shoots? It’s right next to the front door so I’m worried about the population getting out of hand and coming inside! Any info would help. I can even email a pic too for more reference.

    • Cesar,

      Small solitary bees like to use the bamboo tubes as places to lay their eggs. Don’t worry, the population will stay small and they will only be active for a few weeks.

  • Hi Rusty, we are 2nd-year beekeepers and just started visiting your site and LOVE IT!. When we get overwhelmed we visit your site, read your comments, and get recharged to continue on with beekeeping. Question: we were doing a full hive inspection and found big globs of comb and larva on both the top and bottom of the frames not sure why she doesn’t just use the nice organized frames that we provided. Like burr comb, we scraped off along with a good amount of larvae, why are they drawing out comb like this should we have left alone?

  • Thanks for the info. You’ve doubled the time I spend out in the yard (“gardening”) because now I chase all the flyers and try to get a good enough description to identify them! It’s a challenge, to be sure. I need to learn to use a macro lens!

    But I have a honey bee behavior question. I’m in central Oregon, near a river. Our yard has a lot of grass mixed with clover and some flowering weeds. In various areas of the yard, we have honey bees wandering/flying close to the ground. It’s usually near longish grass or clover, but not flowers. There is little bare ground and no visible water nearby. It’s 5-25 bees over an area of a couple of square feet. Their behavior suggests foraging, but they’re not near flowers. They land and walk on the stems (usually clover) then fly up and around. I’ve put out watering stations and have some takers for that, but still, there are these areas of bees.

    Any idea what they’re looking for?

    • Marian,

      I don’t know. My only thought is they are looking for some type of mineral, or else the scent of something is attracting them. Interesting to think about.

      • I think it’s minerals, specifically in…well….dog pee. I watched the dogs and noted where they urinated and noted that the bees were going to those spots in subsequent days. I wonder if they use the UV to find those deposits. Lots to speculate on.

        Thanks, stay well.

  • Couldn’t find a post I remember about bright black and yellow cartoon bees being what the public thinks honey bees should look like, so I’ll put this here:

    Comics page today had a comic about signs of spring, including “Bees.” Four cartoon bees were flying around a SKEP, hanging from a tree limb by a string. Well, I can either get mad or just laugh at humanity. (But all the flying bees had their stingers obviously out, and that was just sad.)

    • Roberta,

      That is sad indeed. I saw an article a few days ago about the “decline” of honey bees and the top illustration was a bumble bee.

  • I’ve looked and don’t see a post on it. Have you written an article preferably with pictures to help identify the different types of honey bees?

    • Hi Matt,

      I’m not sure what you mean by types. Although there are a number of different species of honey bee in the world, only one exists in the Americas and that’s the introduced Apis mellifera. If you live elsewhere, you can easily find out what species live in your area.

      If you mean subspecies, then it’s more complex. Most of the true subspecies of Apis mellifera need laboratory analysis to differentiate. North American beekeepers readily talk about subspecies such as A.m. carnica or A.m. ligustica as if they still exist. But those subspecies were introduced before the Honey Bee Act of 1922 prohibited further import of honey bees (although recent exceptions have been made and some semen has been imported). But those lines imported before 1922 have had 100 years to cross and recross and most bee scientists agree that no one has bothered to maintain separate lines during all those years. Even the so-called Africanized bees came from just a few imported A.m. scutellata, and those quickly crossed with the local bees in South America.

      It’s mostly a feel-good idea that you can buy Italian bees or carniolan bees, but the breeders I have spoken to readily admit that they select breeding stock based on color, so what you are actually getting is black bees or yellow bees. From what I’ve read, they can’t even be separated by DNA analysis, basically because there is no difference beyond color. This is why you can’t find reliable information on how to tell them apart.

      There are some inbred lines that are available such as ankle-biters and other varroa-resistant lines, but it is very difficult or impossible to keep these lines true once they leave the isolated breeding yards.

  • This article is fantastic! I have recently been ask to engrave a honey bee on a custom order for a bee keeper. In my research to draw the insect, I came across a photo of a fly misidentified as a honey bee. I was horrified and chagrined because it was in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC! It was a slide show that accompanied an “Photo Ark” article comprised of amateur photographers submitted to Nat geo. So while I can forgive the photographer I cannot give that same slack to the staff of this lauded magazine the which I have depended on since I was a child. AND! I cannot find a way to contact them. Just had to get that out there. Thanks for the listen.

  • I can forgive non and new beekeepers for not being able to identify bees correctly. The one thing that absolutely drove me crazy was when my kids would come home from school with biology textbooks that had a photo of a flower fly on a daisy labeled honey bee.

    • Mike,

      I agree and I see it all the time in books, advertising, videos, blog posts, and magazines…all from people who should know better than to guess.

  • “Cartoonizing” nature not only insults the reader but provides a disservice to the intended audience.

    While searching for detailed anatomical diagrams of the honey bee I came across a website from Arizona State University. I was disillusioned by the level of pedagogical academia.

    Continuing my search resulted in finding a publication from the United States Department of Agriculture written by R. E. Snodgrass in 1910. There is no excuse for disseminating erroneous information.

    Thank you, Rusty. Your articles are always a highlight in my day.

  • I started photographing bees recently just for fun. Of course, the idea was to get a pretty bee on a pretty flower. But I quickly became interested in bee behaviour. Can you explain this: A honey bee *inside* a squash blossom spending an hour piercing it all over, repeatedly sticking its tongue out into the open air? I wrote to an entomologist who questioned whether it was a honey bee (even with the photos!). I was pretty sure it was, but am now, with your help, convinced it was.

    I have other photos of honey bees nectar robbing. She said it must be secondary robbing as honey bees can’t dig the holes. I’m in Bermuda where there are very few species of bees. Leafcutters have been documented only rarely, and not at all in my area. Do you know if it’s possible for honey bees to dig holes in flowers? There are hundreds on one bush and every one of them has at least one hole at its base with honey bees fighting over them. I would think it would take many leafcutter bees to do the work and therefore I would have noticed them, the bush being in my yard. So far, only honey bees (I think!) are present. Many thanks from an ignorant bee enthusiast. And for your great tutorial!

    • Wendy,

      Interesting stuff here. First, if you want me to look at your bee, you can send a photo to me via email: rusty[at]honeybeesuite[.]com

      Your entomologist friend is right as far as she goes. Yes, nectar robbing by honey bees most likely occurs after another insect opens a hole. These can be bumble bees, carpenter bees, wasps, beetles, aphids, or any other type of insect that can drill holes. However, leafcutters would not inflict that kind of damage. See leafcutter damage here.

      However, I always remain suspicious when people say honey bees cannot rip holes in a flower. Look at the wooden entrance reducer at the bottom of this post. If a honey bee can tear apart a painted wooden stick, surely it could open a hole in a squash blossom. I always question conventional wisdom when it doesn’t seem to make sense, and this is a good example.

      If you can get a photo of the holes, I would love to see them, too.

      Hope this helps, and thanks for writing.

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