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How to identify a honey bee

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. 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 she be concerned? I think so since she was going into her fourth year of beekeeping. By then, methinks, a beekeeper should be able to identify a honey bee on sight.

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, he 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

During the past year, I’ve identified or confirmed fully 24,000 honey bee specimens on iNaturalist. In other words, I’ve seen Apis mellifera suffering all kinds of misadventure. 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

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 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 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 of 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 it

 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 the 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 service. The back of a honey bee 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 bees

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 pattern

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

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.

Sound

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 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 species, bees have either one, two, or three cells tucked directly beneath the marginal cell, and these are referred to as submarginal cell one, two, and three, with number one being closest to the body. These cells come in different shapes and sizes, but a honey bee 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 parts

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.

Acknowledgment

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

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

John W Palmer
Reply

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”.

Rusty
Reply

John,

That’s cute. I wish people would look at the bee and not her wardrobe!

Tom Allen
Reply

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

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

Sure, that is fine. Please provide a link back to my site.

Rick A - Warner
Reply

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

Debbie in Ohio
Reply

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!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Debbie.

Lynne Jones
Reply

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

Rusty
Reply

Funny, right?

Frederick L Heim
Reply

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”.

Muzafar
Reply

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?

Rusty
Reply

Muzafar,

Slumgum.

Granny Roberta in CT USA
Reply

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.)

Rusty
Reply

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.

Granny Roberta
Reply

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.

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