Most bees are beneficial to gardens, food crops, and wild plants.
Bees feed their young pollen and nectar.
There are more than 20,000 species of bees around the world.
Wasps are not bees.
Bee-lieve it or, there are more than 20,000 species of bees globally—and 4,000 of those are native to the U.S. While all bees play an essential role as pollinators of various plants, most gardeners will encounter only a few common kinds. Many of the most notable species are also the bees that are beneficial to your garden, including honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, and mason bees. This guide will help you identify just what kind of bee is buzzing around your garden.
How to Identify Different Types of Bees
When identifying different bee species, it’s important to understand the colony's structure and the similarities bee types have. There are three main “jobs” in the bee kingdom.
These female bees forage in gardens to bring pollen back to the hive. They're smaller than the drones or the queen and are the bees you're most likely to see, as they're the ones moving from flower to flower. In solitary species, the female bees harvest materials from plant to plant, make nests, and lay eggs.
These are male bees that exist primarily to mate with the queen. You’ll likely spot one of them when entering or exiting the hive. They’re larger than worker bees.
In social colonies such as with honeybees, there’s only one queen, and she exists to reproduce, which is why she needs so many drones. She also helps maintain the harmony of the hive with a special pheromone she emits.
1. Honeybee (Apis)
Although honeybees were imported from Europe in the 17th century and aren’t native to the U.S., they’re one of the most prominent bee species today. Responsible for pollinating many U.S. crops, including various fruits, nuts, and many plants in the wild, they also produce delicious edible honey, edible honeycomb, and beeswax. Often confused with bumblebees, honeybees are more slender than bumbles.
Size: 15–20 mm long; the queen bee can be up to 25 mm
Color: Yellow and black or varying yellow, brown, and black shades
They’re typically striped.
Honeybees are covered in short hairs, giving them a fuzzy, velvety appearance.
You’ll see them when it warms up in the spring until it starts to get cold in the fall.
Honeybees only sting if threatened or provoked.
They can sting only once.
They form their colonies of hives inside existing cavities, often trees.
The queen honeybee is the sole egg layer.
The queen also produces a pheromone, helping maintain productivity and harmony in the colony.
2. Bumblebee (Bombus)
Though not a scientific fact, it’s widely agreed that bumblebees are among the cutest bees. There are 46 bumblebee species in the U.S., including the American bumblebee, the black and gold bumblebee, and the brown-belted bumblebee. They’re all crucial pollinators to both food crops and wild plants.
Size: 10–22 millimeters; the queen bee can be up to 27 mm long
Color: Typically yellow- and black-striped but can also be yellow and black (without stripes) or yellow with a black end
Like honeybees, bumblebees are covered in short, fuzzy hair, giving them a velvety appearance.
Their abdomens tend to be rounder than a honeybee.
You’ll see them when it warms up in the spring until it starts to get cold in the fall, but you may see them year-round in warmer climates.
Bumblebees only sting if nests are disturbed.
One bee can sting you multiple times.
Most bumblebees nest in colonies underground in existing cavities, such as an abandoned rodent burrow.
Bumblebee queens act in the same capacity as honeybee queens.
3. Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa)
Carpenter bees get their name for their love of wood—they burrow into softwoods to nest and reproduce. They’re sometimes mistaken for bumblebees, but carpenter bees aren’t fuzzy. The holes they make in the wood are 1/16 of an inch round and attract woodpeckers that like to peck holes to eat the bee larvae.
Size: Similar size range to that of a honeybee, 10–20 mm long
Color: Primarily black with some yellow on the abdomen or all black; males can have a white spot on their heads
They have shiny, hairless abdomens.
Carpenter bees sport rounder abdomens, like honeybees.
They aren’t aggressive but will attack if their nests are disturbed.
One bee can sting multiple times.
Carpenter bees are solitary and emerge in the spring to build nests and mate.
Female carpenter bees build nests and lay eggs after mating.
Unlike other bees, the male carpenter bee stays with the female and protects the nest.
You’ll see them mainly in the spring, typically February through May.
They burrow in wood to make a nest, especially softwoods such as cedar, pine, and redwood, unpainted wood, decks, wooden outdoor furniture, and wood shake roofs, eaves, rafters, fascia, and siding.
4. Mason Bee (Osmia)
Common throughout the U.S., this native bee genus includes 140 different species. They have a unique habit of creating a mortar from mud over the cells where they lay their eggs, giving them the name mason bee. They’re excellent and efficient pollinators, known to visit as many as 2,000 flowers in one day—a welcome addition to any garden.
Size: 7–15 mm long
Color: Usually blue or blue-black
They’re excellent pollinators.
Mason bees are non-aggressive and will only sting if trapped or stepped on.
Mason bees are solitary and come together to build a nest to mate and lay eggs in the spring.
Female mason bees build nests and lay eggs.
They’re most often spotted in February through May.
Mason bees nest in any existing cavity, such as woodpecker holes.
They use mud to seal off cells in nests.
5. Sweat Bee (Halictidae)
These bees are attracted to your sweat, hence the name. They feed their larvae with pollen and supplement with salts, which they get from your sweat. The good news is while they may be attracted to you, they aren’t particularly aggressive. The even better news is they’re vital pollinators and help your garden look beautiful and your trees produce fruit. There are close to 500 different species of sweat bees in North America alone.
Size: 4–12 mm in length
Color: Brown or black, but more often metallic shades of green, red, or yellow; can also be striped or banded
They’re excellent pollinators.
Sweat bees tend to nest in the ground and occasionally in rotting wood.
They’re social bees that form smaller colonies than honeybees.
Bright green sweat bees are the most commonly seen.
Sweat bees are one of the smallest bee species.
Sweat bee queens act in the same capacity as honeybee queens.
6. Leafcutter Bee (Megachilidae)
Not only are these bees terrific pollinators, but they also have a unique characteristic that gives them their name: They cut leaves. Leafcutter bees lay larvae in pre-existing cavities that have been lined with leaves and flower petals to create a soft cell for the larvae to grow in. Leafcutter bees harvest from flowers and leaves in your garden in a neat, circular pattern. So before you spray your plants with a pesticide, give them another look.
Size: Similar size range to that of a honeybee, 10–20 mm long
Color: Mostly black with white or yellow stripes or bands on the abdomen
Leafcutter bees have a larger head than most other bees because of the extra muscles needed to chew up leaves.
Female leafcutter bees have teeth.
Females have triangular-shaped abdomens.
They nest in existing cavities in soft rotten wood.
They’re solitary insects.
Females build nests and lay eggs after mating with the males.
7. Africanized Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
Africanized honeybees, also known as killer bees, look an awful lot like the European honeybee. And they're excellent pollinators that make honey and beeswax. In the U.S., they're considered an invasive species by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and are currently found primarily in the Southeast, Southwest, and Southern California. Although they contribute to pollination, you may need to remove bees from your property because they can be aggressive and sting in numbers. They're known to be more protective of their nests, so act accordingly if you suspect them on your property and contact a bee removal specialist near you.
Size: Around 18 mm or smaller
Color: Golden yellow with darker bands of brown
Africanized honeybees look nearly identical to the domesticated European honeybee.
Their bodies are slightly smaller than honeybees.
They produce honey and beeswax.
They pollinate plants and help crops but are considered invasive.
Small colonies mean they can form their nests in various places, including tree cavities, holes in the ground, as well as old tires, trash cans, and barbecues.
Africanized honeybee queens act in the same capacity as domesticated honeybee queens.
A Word About Wasps (Vespidae)
Although often mistakenly called so, wasps aren't bees. While they belong to the same greater insect group (Hymenoptera) and suborder (Apocrita), wasps are part of a family of insects containing over 20,000 different species. The family Vespidae has 5,000 species, including some of the more commonly known wasps, like the common yellow jacket and hornets. Yellow jackets, paper wasps, and hornets are the ones you're most likely to see around your home or garden.
Size: 15–20 mm long, similar to that of a honeybee
Color: Varies from species to species, but yellow jackets are yellow with black markings or stripes; paper wasps and hornets can have similar coloring, although commonly spotted hornets have more black, brown, or red
Although they look very similar to honeybees in their abdomen shape, yellow jackets and paper wasps aren’t hairy.
Hornets have a thicker abdomen.
Wasps nest in various places, including trees, the ground, and on and inside buildings.
Paper wasps build distinctive nests often in the eaves of houses.
Wasps aren’t actually aggressive and won’t sting unless their nests are threatened.
It’s more likely you’ll disturb their nests because wasps build nests near buildings and houses.
They can sting multiple times.
Wasps feed their young other insects like spiders, whereas most bees feed their young pollen and nectar.
Wasps can eat pests bothering your garden, but they eat your garden’s common beneficial insects too.
If you discover wasp nests on your property, you can try to remove them yourself. But if you see more than a few, contact a local pest control company to have them removed.
Should You Remove Bees From Your Property?
Because most of the common types of bees you’ll find in your garden are beneficial, removing them is usually unnecessary. However, there are several situations in which bee removal is advised, including allergies, small children or pets, and discovering bees nesting inside your home or within the exterior walls of your home. How much it costs for bee removal depends on what type of bee and how difficult it is to get to the nest, but it can range from $75 to $2,000.