Beekeeping Basics: Brushing Up on Bee ID

A sure sign of spring for me personally is the re-emergence of my bees from their winter dormancy. While they will occasionally make an appearance on warm winter days to take a short cleansing flight, it takes some sun and warmer temperatures to encourage them to break out of the tight ball they overwinter in and start foraging for nectar and pollen.

Before I kept bees I never gave much thought to what a honeybee looked like in comparison to other bees. Now that I can tell them not only by sight but by sound as they fly by, I thought some basic identification tips would be of interest to gardeners and anyone who spends a bit of time enjoying the outdoors.

The picture above shows two bees side by side. The big one on the lower right is the common wild bee known as a bumblebee. Its size, slow flight and low-pitched buzz make it easy to spot and identify. Being fairly common, it is what many people think of when they think of a bee. The bee on the upper left is one of my honeybees. As you can see, it is much smaller, with a pronounced thorax and more orange coloring (although honeybee coloring varies widely). The bright pollen sacs on the side of its legs are also visible. Below is a clear picture of just a honeybee alone it all of its glory.

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If you have flowers, dandelions, or a flourishing garden on your property, and you see a bee similar to the one above, then someone in the vicinity is probably keeping bees. Count yourself lucky, as they are great pollinators and generally very docile and focused solely on their work.

Of course there are wasps and hornets, epitomized by the ubiquitous yellow jacket, which give real bees a bad rap. They are easy to tell apart from bees if you actually take the time to give them a look. Plus, their aggressive demeanor is a sure sign that you are not dealing with an innocent honeybee foraging for nectar.

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Next time you are out in the garden, take a minute to watch the bees at work. It's a fascinating show.

(Image 1: Richard Popovic. Image 2 by Flickr member Ryan Wick licensed for use under Creative Commons. Image 3 by Flickr member D.Griebeling licensed for use under Creative Commons.)