Bees play an important role in natural and agricultural systems as pollinators of flowering plants that provide food, fiber, animal forage, and ecological services like soil and water conservation. In fact, approximately three-quarters of all flowering plants rely on pollinators to reproduce. In addition to honey bees, native bees provide valuable pollination services. Though unknown, the number of native bee species in Montana is likely in the hundreds.

This guide provides information for identifying 10 types of bees commonly found in Montana including descriptions of key characters, size (mm), nesting habitat, and other identifying behaviors.

Contents

Bee Identification

photo diagram of bee body parts, including the head, thorax, abdomen, and pollen-carrying hairs

Bees, like other insects, have three body segments: a head, thorax, and abdomen. The head consists of compound eyes, antennae that are segmented and bent, mouthparts that include jaws for chewing, and a tongue for drinking nectar. The thorax bears the legs and four wings (two forewings and two hind-wings). The abdomen contains the sting in female bees.  Female bees also have special pollen-carrying hairs or other structures commonly found on the hind legs or the underside of the abdomen. For example, honey bees carry pollen in a pollen basket which is an area on the hind leg that is bare and surrounded by incurving hairs.

A Bee or Not a Bee?

There are two major groups of insects that are commonly confused with bees—flies and wasps. In fact, many flower-visiting flies are actuallybee mimics. By mimicking bees in appearance, they are able to gain protection from predators and even act as bee parasites. So how do you tell them all apart?

 

Photo of a fuzzy looking fly on a yellow flower

Fly Identification

Flies have only two wings, while bees have four. Flies have short, stubby antennae with long hairs or feathery antennae and sucking or sponging mouthparts. Many flies have large eyes that almost meet at the top of their heads.

 Close-up photo of a wasp's head

Wasp Identification

Similar to bees, wasps have four wings, chewing mouthparts, a sting, and long antennae. But, while bees are usually very hairy, wasps are usually smooth and almost hairless. Wasps also have a typical, slender “wasp waist” and rarely have pollen-carrying hairs because most are carnivores and don’t eat pollen. Wasps are important predators of many pest insects including cutworms, aphids, and grasshoppers. Additionally, some wasps make paper nests in trees or on buildings.

Now that you know the difference between bees, wasps, and flies, try the ID quiz (page bottom).


 

Honey bees (Apis mellifera)

Family: Apidae

Heart-shaped head; hairy eyes; black to amber-brown body with pale and dark stripes on abdomen; barrel-shaped abdomen; pollen basket on hind legs; 10-15mm.

  •  Social colonies; live in man-made hives and natural cavities like tree holes; swarm to locate new nests
  •  Honey bees are managed for crop pollination and honey production

 

return to contents

Honey bee on a pink flower, photo credit RKD Peterson

Man-made beehives, photo credit Casey Delphia


 

Leafcutting bees (Megachile spp.)

Family: Megachilidae

Head as broad as thorax; large jaws used to cut leaves; black body with pale hair bands on abdomen; pollen-carrying hairs on the underside of abdomen; 7-15 mm.

  • Solitary; nest in natural or man-made holes such as beetle tunnels or wood nesting blocks
  • Females cut circular pieces from leaves and use them to line their nests

 

return to contents

Leafcutting bee on a yellow flower, photo credit Hartmut Wisch

Leafcutting bee cutting a leaf, photo credit Casey M Delphia


 

Bumble bees (Bombus spp.)

Family: Apidae

Robust, hairy bees; black body covered with black, yellow, orange, or white hairs in bands; pollen basket on hind legs; 10-23 mm.

  • Social colonies; often nest underground in small cavities like old rodent burrows
  • Bumble bees can buzz-pollinate, which is important for plants that require vibration to release pollen

 

return to contents

 Bumble bee sitting on a leaf grooming itself, photo credit Lynette Schimming

Bumble bee on a pink flower, photo credit RKD Peterson


Sweat bees

Family: Halictidae

Many forms including: dull black/brown body with light abdominal hair bands, bright metallic green, dull metallic blue, copper, or green, and black with a red abdomen (parasites of other bees); pollen-carrying hairs on hind legs (except in parasitic bees); 3-11mm.

  • Solitary, communal, and semisocial soil nesters
  • Some are attracted to the salt in sweat

 

return to contents

Sweat bee on white Yarrow flowers, photo credit Gary McDonald

Sweat bee on a purple flower, photo credit Gary McDonald

Sweat bee on a leaf, photo credit Tom Murray

Sweat bee on a white flower, photo credit Lynette Schimming


 

Small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.)

Family: Apidae

Shiny, dark metallic blue-green body; sparsely haired; distinctive cylindrical abdomen; pollen-carrying hairs on hind legs; 3-10mm.

  • 3-10mm.Solitary; nest in dead twigs and stems
  • Yellow or white markings on face (females have a vertical bar, males have an inverted T)

 

return to contents

Small carpenter bee on a fuzzy leaf, photo credit Tom Murray

Small carpenter bee drinking nectar from a white flower, photo credit Steve Nanz


 

Mining bees (Andrena spp.)

Family: Andrenidae

Black or dull metallic blue or green body; fairly hairy; pollen-carrying hairs on upper parts of hind legs (resemble “armpits”); 6-15 mm.

  • Solitary; nest in the ground; prefer sandy soil
  • Andrenids are very abundant in the spring as they are one of the first bees to emerge each season

 

return to contents

Mining bee on a leaf, photo credit Tom Murray

Mining bee drinking nectar from a white flower, photo credit Ted Kropiewnicki


 

Mason bees (Osmia spp.)

Family: Megachilidae

Robust body; broad, round head and abdomen; usually metallic green or blue; pollen-carrying hairs on underside of abdomen; 5-20 mm.

  • Solitary; nest in natural or man-made holes like beetle tunnels, wood nesting blocks, or reed stems
  • Use mud or chewed-up leaves/petals for nest walls

 

return to contents

Mason bee on wood, photo credit Lynette Schimming

Mason bee drinking nectar from a pink flower, photo credit Ken Kertell


 

Long horned bees (Melissodes spp.)

Family: Apidae

Robust; hairy; black body with pale hair bands on abdomen; dense pollen-carrying hairs on hind legs; males have very long antennae; 7-16 mm.

  • Solitary to communal ground nesters
  • Some are especially attracted to asters, sunflowers, and daisies

 

return to contents

Long horned bee on a yellow flower, photo credit J.C. Lucier

Long horned bee drinking nectar from a pink flower, photo credit Kevin Hall


 

Yellow-faced or masked bees (Hylaeus spp.)

Family: Colletidae

Slender; almost hairless; black body with yellow or white markings on head, thorax and legs; no pollen-carrying hairs; 5-7 mm.

  • Solitary; nest in twigs, stems, and existing tunnels in wood
  • Carry pollen and nectar in a special storage structure of the digestive system called a crop

 

return to contents

Masked bee on small white flowers, photo credit Gary McDonald

Masked bee close-up showing head markings, photo credit Tom Murray


 

Cuckoo bees (Nomada spp.)

Family: Apidae

Wasp-like; sparse branched hairs; red or black body with yellow or white markings; relatively thick antennae; no pollen-carrying hairs; 5-15 mm.

  • Females visit flowers for nectar, but do not collect pollen for their young
  • Females are cleptoparasites-they lay eggs in nests of other bees thereby stealing the nests and food

 

return to contents

Cuckoo bee on a leaf, photo credit Tom Murray

Cockoo bee on a yellow flower, photo credit Hartmut Wisch


Bee, Wasp, Fly Identification Quiz

Try to ID each insect based on its visible traits.  Answers below.

Quiz image 1: Four-winged insect with no pollen-carrying hairs Quiz image 2: two winged insect in a flower Quiz image 3: flying insects with eyes so large they nearly touch
 Quiz image 4: shiny and slender flying insect  Quiz image 5: fuzzy four-winged insect on a flower  Quiz image 6: flying insect with a red body and thick antennae
 Quiz image 7: flying insect with pale hair and large jaws  Quiz image 8: hairless yellow and black insect with long antennae  Quiz image 9: flying insect with very short antennae, sitting on a flower

 

 

Answers:

1) Wasp 2) Fly 3) Fly
4) Wasp 5) Sweat bee     6) Cuckoo bee
7) Leaf cutting bee      8) Wasp 9) Fly

 

return to contents


Authors

Casey M. Delphia, Kevin M. O’Neill
Department of Land Resources & Environmental Sciences
Montana State University, Bozeman, MT

Scott Prajzner
Department of Entomology
Ohio State University OARDC, Wooster, OH

In cooperation with Pollinator Partnership

 

United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service logo

 

Pollinator Partnership logo

Original July 2011 PDF (1.2MB)

 

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Genna Boland for assistance with AutoMontage® photographs and image editing.

 

return to top

 

You may require Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the PDFs on this page.