How to identify bees

To make it easier for you to collect data with the app, we’ve created just six categories of insects that you will need to be able to identify as you use the app to observe insects that are visiting and pollinating crop flowers:

  • Honey bee
  • Bumble bee
  • Large dark bee
  • Small dark bee
  • Green bee
  • Non-bee (e.g. wasps, flies)

Review the six categories below and download our Bee ID Guide for a quick printable reference.

Download the Bee ID Guide (PDF)

Learn our five bee categories

Honey beeHoney bee (Apis mellifera)

Family: Apidae

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is not native to Wisconsin and typically requires human managed hives to survive in our state. Honey bees are social and live in very large hives with up to 60,000 bees.

What to look for:
  • Medium to large in size (1/2 inch long)
  • Striped abdomen and heart-shaped face
  • Honey-colored, brown with some black
  • Look for bright yellow balls of pollen that they store on their hind legs. These are called corbicula or “pollen baskets”.
This category includes 1 bee species.

Bumble bee

Family: Apidae

Due to their large size and dense hair, bumble bees can fly and pollinate in cooler temperatures and carry more pollen than other bees. They are also active the entire length of the growing season, from April to October. Bumble bees are social, living in colonies below ground with anywhere from 50 to 500 individuals.

What to look for:
  • Large to very large in size (1/2 to 1 inch long)
  • Dense hairs cover entire body
  • Black and yellow coloring. A few species have brown/orange patches.
  • Look for bright yellow balls of pollen (corbicula) stored on their hind legs.
This category includes 20 bumble bee species.

Learn more about bumble bees

Large dark bee

Families: Apidae, Andrenidae, Colletidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae

This diverse group of solitary bees (not social) includes mining bees, mason bees, and leafcutter bees, and they each have very different nesting and foraging behaviors. A mining bee, for example, will nest in underground tunnels. A mason bee will often find a hollow stem or beetle burrow where she builds her nest.

What to look for:
  • Medium to large size (over 1/2 inch long)
  • Abdomen may be striped or solid
  • Color may be black, dark brown, or deep blue. Some bees have light-colored hair on a dark body.
This category includes over 100 bee species.

Small dark bee

Families: Andrenidae, Apidae, Colletidae, Halictidae

This diverse group of solitary bees (not social) includes many species of sweat bees, carpenter bees, and more. Look for them crawling around inside flowers. A carpenter bee will create her nest in woody stems and twigs while other bee species will excavate a nest in the ground.

What to look for:
  • Tiny to small in size (less than 1/4 inch long)
  • Color may be black, brown or golden.
  • Hairs are much smaller and less noticeable, and their bodies tend to be narrower.
This category includes over 100 bee species.

Green bee

Family: Halictidae

These solitary sweat bees are very small but stand out due to their bright coloring. They are generalists, visiting many different types of flowers, and you can see them carrying pollen on their hind legs. They nest in the ground, and are most active summer and fall.

What to look for:
  • Tiny to small in size (less than 1/4 inch long)
  • Metallic green in color on all or part of their body.
  • May have a striped yellow and black abdomen.
  • Their bodies tend to be narrower.
This category includes 9 bee species.

Learn to identify a few non-bee pollinators


Flies are in a completely different order of insects from bees (Diptera). The syrphid fly in this photo is commonly seen visiting flowers in Wisconsin, though flies are less efficient pollinators compared to bees.

What to look for:
  • Notice their flying behavior: flies hover very steadily, which bees are unable to do.
  • Flies have noticeably huge eyes that meet at the top of the head.
  • Flies have short stubby antennae that are difficult to see.
  • Flies have only one pair of wings.

Learn more about fly pollination


Wasps are in the same order of insects as bees (Hymenoptera). While wasps do visit flowers, they lack feathery hairs on their bodies and are unable to collect pollen as efficiently as bees.

What to look for:
  • Wasps tend to take their time collecting flower nectar, whereas bees tend to move deliberately and quickly.
  • Wasps have a very pinched waist and long narrow body.
  • Wasps have no hairs, and their exoskeleton is brightly colored.
  • Wasps also have two pairs of wings, similar to bees.

Learn more about wasp pollination