Identifying Bees

Beekeepers are often approached about winged, flying creatures, especially in the spring and summer when these generate a lot of activity.

Most people have never seen a swarm of honeybees. It is not surprising that people can confuse a swarm of honeybees with a wasps’ nest or a bumble bees’ nest. There are many different kinds of bees and wasps and so if people see a lot of buzzing creatures together and don’t know the difference they might simply assume they have a swarm.

Here’s the first tidbit of information people can use to be accurate: a honeybee swarm is not the same as a honeybee nest.

A typical honeybee home:

wild comb in tree wildbeehiveentrance

versus a swarm, which are honeybees on the hunt for a place to make a home:

nick kumar
This part of the BBA website is to help you ID what kind of insect you have and therefore what to do about it.


1 – Bumblebees (Bombus species)

Bumbus Impatiens NestBumblebee Pollen BasketRusty Patch Bumblebee

Bumblebees are often confused with honeybees. However bumblebees are rounder, larger and furrier and come with a variety of coloured stripes across their tails. They also sound louder, and look too fat to fly. Bumblebees tend to nest on the ground, in compost, under decks, behind steps and beneath floorboards. Old mouse nests are a particular favourite. They exist in colonies of up to 50 members or so (ruled by a queen) and the majority of the hive dies in winter. The queen hibernates, then emerges in spring to start a new colony.

Leave them alone if possible. Bumblebees are an important pollinator (especially tomatoes!) and rarely sting. Bumblebees are a declining species everywhere, and some species are under threat of extinction.

Note: beekeepers will not collect/remove bumblebees.

For more information contact the Beefriend Organization or Hinterland Who’s Who.

Bumblebees are native to Canada, but I put them in their own category separate to the one below given their similarity to honeybees.


2 – Other Bees (native species)

There are over 800 species of native bees in Canada. All are related to the honeybees but are grouped in different taxonomic families. Some sting, some don’t. Some collect nectar, some are predatory. Some are parasitic, some are beneficial. Some look vaguely like honeybees, some look exotic and beautiful. Take a look!

Tiger Striped Green Metallic Bee Osmia Chalbea Mason Bee Megachile centuncularis leaf cutter beehovering carpenter beeOsmia rufa male red mason beeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA carpenter-bee green sweat bee metallic orchid bee squash bees mating Xenoglossa- long horn bee

 This is the most diverse group of bees, and this small blurb does not do them justice. Mason bees, orchard bees, leaf-cutter bees, orchard bees, mining bees, sweat bees and plasterer bees can be put into this group, among many many more. ID is more problematic, but a good start can be found on David Suzuki’s Toronto Pollinator Page.

Most of these bees are ground nesters, twig/wood nesters and in some cases, mimic the appearance of ant nests! Are there lots of small bees popping in and out of the wall, or small holes in the ground? Have they drilled holes in your soffits of the house or come out of hollow stalks and hover nearby? Are there round holes on the leaves of your favourite rose bush? Congratulations, you’ve attracted native pollinators!

They are harmless and as their name suggests, live more or less alone. Some are fantastic at keeping the bug population in your backyard down, and others are specialized pollinators, like squash bees or orchard bees. They should be left alone, or better yet, encouraged to stay by giving them a place to live and ample forage.

Beekeepers will not collect/remove native bee species.

For more information on native bee species visit the Xerces Society or read a nice overview on Anthony Melathopoulos‘s blog. This is a very dense read from the University of Alberta on Eastern native bee species, with many links to pictures. Worth the exploration if you have time.


3 – Wasps & Hornets (various species)

Also related to honeybees, wasps and hornets are the most feared of the order Hymenoptera. They tend to be predators, unlike the vegetarian honeybees. They have smooth stingers to kill their prey, and thus they can repeatedly jab you in a frenzy (unlike honeybees, who can only sting once for defense and then die).  Many are beneficial because they prey on many insects, including caterpillars, flies, crickets, and other pests. During late summer and fall, as queens stop laying eggs and their nests decline, wasps change their food gathering priorities and are more interested in collecting sweets and other carbohydrates. They become attracted to sweet things like soda, alcohol, jam, rotted or fallen fruit, perfume and garbage cans.

Bald-faced_hornet_(Dolichovespula_maculata)_nestmud dauber wasp nestpaper wasppaper wasp Polistes spp bald faced hornet Dolichovespula spp mason wasp

The most commonly encountered wasps in southern Ontario are mud daubers,  bald-faced hornets (a misnomer, they’re wasps), yellowjackets and paper wasps.  European hornets were introduced to Canada and can be found here as well.

The paper wasps are the ones that build nests that look like honeycombs at first but are papery, and eventually turn into those oblong grey-brown balloons that look like Winnie the Poo versions of honeybee nests. Don’t be fooled. How can you tell? Do a check: they are bright yellow with black stripes, very smooth, elongated with no fur and are higher-pitched when flying.

Wasps can set up shop in annoying places like in the eaves of your house or shed, a low-hanging tree branch, on your porch or even on your windowsills. Other wasps will exploit small holes or cracks in your masonry/brick and get into the spaces inside your house, between your walls and cause havoc. If you have a yellow jacket nest in the wall, NEVER plug the hole before the nest is treated and they are all dead. Plugging the hole often forces them to come out inside. Several hundred yellow-jackets flying around the house can be a close encounter of the wrong kind.

The mud daubers tend to build long straw-like tunnels in bundles along a sunny wall, made of (you guessed it) mud.

The  bald-faced hornet is larger than the others, and are black and white.

Beekeepers will not collect/remove wasps.

For more information about wasps and hornets go to


4 – European/Western Honeybees (Apis mellifera)

Bee on flowerHoneybeeWild honeybee hive in tree

Honeybees are the most familiar and commercial of the bee families. Apis mellifera is the western or European honeybee, and has several sister species, all whom reside in Asia. Honeybees are small, furry, and vary from gold to brown to black with stripes. They are vegetarians who pollinate flowers as they collect nectar and pollen to take back to their nest to feed the queen and brood. Honeybees are not usually aggressive when foraging, but please be polite and give them their space.

You are most likely to meet foragers (but only during the day, they return to their hive at night) but you may be graced with the sight of a swarm in summer! Swarms are honeybees who are in the process of trying to find a site for a new home.



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