The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Curious Beekeeper

How to Identify a Honey Bee

- December 1, 2019 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

honey bee identification

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?”

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.

Two General Rules

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 I have declared 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.

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.

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 ….