What’s That on My Flower? (Part 1)

What’s That on My Flower? (Part 1)

A simple guide to bees and things that look like bees
By Betsy Thorsteinson

There are hundreds of species of bees, wasps, and flower flies, and often it is not easy to identify which is which when you see them on your flowers, but they all do an important job, and our world could not go on without them. This is a basic guide to tell them apart.


Wasps visit flowers for nectar, but unlike bees, who are pollen-eaters, wasps are hunters and eat other insects. The wasp and bee illustrated below were photographed in the middle of May, both seeking food from early-blooming plants in my garden. They both have four wings. The wasp is social and lives in a hive constructed of paper, and the bee is solitary and constructs its nest in the ground.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson.  Mining Bee, Andrena sp.

So, what else makes them different? 


A very common bee in gardens is the western honey bee, Apis mellifera. These bees are often the first bees you will see in the spring, as they fly before many of the native bees emerge. They are medium-sized and often have orange colouring at the top of their abdomens, though some do not. They carry pollen in pollen baskets on their legs and can also be distinguished from similar wild bees because they fly with their legs down and at an angle. This habit is pretty distinctive and is an easy way to identify them as they buzz around your flowers.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honey Bee, Apis mellifera, with orange band.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honey Bee, Apis mellifera, without orange band.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honeybee with legs down.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Wild Bee (family Megachilidae) flying with legs tucked into her body.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honeybee with pollen basket.

Because they are out so early, western honeybees collect pollen from the flowers of Siberian squill. I found out that the plant has blue pollen when I photographed the bees!

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honey Bee with blue pollen of Siberian squill.

Bumble bees are everyone’s favourite: they are big and fuzzy and seem to defy the laws of aerodynamics when they fly. They are also notoriously difficult to identify, as they have many colour variations. The first bumble bees to fly in the spring are the queens, newly awakened after hibernation, and seeking food sources and nesting sites. You often see these big bees flying low in zigzag patterns searching for just the right site to start a new colony. As with honey bees, they have pollen baskets on their legs. There are a few bumble bees in Manitoba that I find are easy to identify.                                        

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Yellow-banded Bumble Bee, Bombus terricola
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Yellow-banded Bumble Bee.

This bumblebee is apparently declining in some of its range but is a regular visitor to my garden in spring.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Tricoloured Bumble Bee, Bombus ternarius
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Tricoloured Bumble Bee.

This beautiful bumble bee is quite common in our area, and easily identified by the three colours on its abdomen: yellow, a bright orange band, yellow again, and then black. It also sports a distinctive teardrop-shaped black spot behind its head. 


As with bees, there are many species of flower flies. These are important pollinators, and they look like they might be bees, but they differ from bees in having two rather than four wings. (The European woolcarter bee in the photo below looks like it has two wings, but the dark bottom edge of its forewing is the hind wing hidden below it. When it flies, the smaller hindwing is attached to the forewing with a series of hooks.) All flies have two wings: in fact, their scientific name is Diptera, which means two-winged in Greek.

Flower flies also have short antennae, big forward-facing eyes, and thick waists, and they lack pollen-collecting hairs on their bodies or legs. They do not sting or bite, but they mimic the colours of insects that do.

Of all these features, I find that the short antennae and big eyes give them away as flies.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Flower Fly, Helophilus sp.  
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. European Woolcarder Bee, Anthidium manicatum
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Bee from the family Megachilidae with its four wings spread and hooked.

Featured banner photo: Betsy Thorsteinson