What Is Not A Honey Bee?

There are many insects and insect homes that are commonly confused with honey bees and their hives.

Bumble bees

Bumble bees are large fuzzy flying insects from the genus Bombus. They have smooth stingers, which means that they can sting multiple times. There are 16 species of bumble bees in Ontario. Like honey bees, bumble bees are social insects that live in colonies. Unlike honey bees, bumble bee colonies only last one year and are started from a single queen (honey bee queens cannot survive on their own like bumble bee queens). Bumble bee colonies begin in the spring when a queen emerges from hibernation. She will search for a hole in the ground such as an old chipmunk burrow, where she will begin building her nest. She will build cups out of wax where she will lay eggs. as the colony grows, more cups will be built, and some will be used for honey storage. Bumble bees make honey, but not as much as honey bees. In the fall, the queen bumble bee will produce multiple queens who will leave the nest to mate and find a place to hibernate. The workers and drones do not survive the winter. In the spring, each queen will begin their own colony. 

Bumble bees and pollination

Bumble bees are very good pollinators. They use a technique called buzz pollination, to shake pollen loose from the stamen of flowers. This is especially effective for plants that have long, tubular flowers that may be inaccessible to honey bees. In agriculture, bumble bees are used to pollinate plants grown in greenhouses such as tomatoes and cucumbers. They do just fine inside the greenhouse, unlike honey bees who just try to escape instead. 

Solitary bees

There are around 400 species of solitary bees in Ontario! Like honey bees and bumble bees, they are classified as insects in the order Hymenoptera. Solitary bees do not live in colonies like honey bees or bumble bees. Instead, they make their homes in small holes in trees or the ground, or in hollow woody stems. In the spring, most solitary bee species emerge from eggs laid in the previous year to mate and find a new nest. Once they find a suitable spot, they will begin laying eggs and collecting food for them. Some solitary bees will line their nests with leaves or grass. In the fall, they will seal up their nests to protect their young for the winter. For some species, the eggs hatch at this time and the bees will overwinter as larvae. They will eat the pollen that their parent left for them in the nest. The adult bees will not overwinter. Solitary bees are pollinators too! With so much diversity within solitary bees, they pollinate a wide variety of plant species and are often specialized to pollinate one plant species exclusively. 

Types of solitary bees

Sweat bees

Males have a shiny green/brassy head and body and sometimes a black and yellow banded abdomen. They are a ground nesting bee and attracted to sunflowers and other common plants in the late spring to summer.

Squash and gourd bees

Specialist pollinators preferring squashes, gourdes and pumpkins. They are the approximate size of a honey bee and are ground nesting.

Carpenter bees

Similar in appearance to a bumble bee and collects pollen and nectar but construct their nests inside wood. These bees tunnel inside wood to make their nests, dividing their individual eggs with sawdust. Carpenter bees have dull, hairy hind legs, compared to shiny pollen baskets of bumble bees.

Leafcutter bees

Leafcutter bees are solitary nesting bees that clip edges from leaves of plants to divide up their nests like the carpenter bee. Leafcutter bees carry pollen underneath their abdomens, unlike honey bees and bumble bees.


Wasps are a very diverse group of insects in the order Hymenoptera. They often have less hair than bees and have very narrow waists. Like bumble bees, wasps have smooth stingers and can use them multiple times. Some species of wasps are parasitoidal, meaning that they lay their eggs inside other organisms, often other insects. This provides a place for the larvae to grow, and a meal as well. Many species of wasps are solitary and have similar lifecycle to solitary bees. They make their nests in holes in trees and woody stems. Other species even use mud and construct their own nests. Some species of wasps are social and live in colonies. The most common social wasp in Ontario is the yellowjacket wasp. They live in nests constructed out of paper that they make by chewing up wood and mixing it with their saliva. Only queens will overwinter, and the colonies do not return to the same nest the next year. 
Picture credits: Rory Wills (rorymacro)


Hornets are a group of social wasp species in the family Vespidae. The most common hornet species in Ontario is the bald face hornet. They are a large black and white striped hornet that live in paper nests similar to yellowjacket wasps. 

Wasps and hornets are very important for the environment. In addition to being pollinators, wasps also eat other insects that humans consider pests. They help regulate bad insect populations and control disease! Some wasp species are even used in agriculture to get rid of insects that damage crops. 
picture credits: Rory Wills (rorymacro)

Hover flies

Hover flies are insects in the family Diptera. They have similar coloured stripes to bees and can be easily mistaken for a bee. Hoverflies have evolved to look like bees in order to look more dangerous than they really are. Stripes mean “Watch out! I can sting!”. Some major differences between hoverflies and bees are a lack of stinger, thin, hairless legs, and only one pair of wings. Hoverflies have a different flying pattern than bees and have the ability to hover in one spot in the air, which bees do not. Hoverflies are important pollinators for plants such as strawberries.

TypeHoney Bee
(Apis mellifera)
Wasps and Hornets (Hymenoptera spp.)Flies and hoverfliesBumble bee 
(Bombus spp.)
Solitary Bees
Body AppearanceUsually thick-bodied with 3 distinct segmentsSkinny body and narrow “waist”No “waist” between thorax and abdomenThick bodied with distinct fuzzy abdomen, no discernable “waist”Varies among different species, but generally smaller than bumble bees
Size12mm length10-25mm lengthVariable13-25mm lengthVariable
Wing appearanceFour wingsFour wings2 Wings Variable
Hair on bodyHair on body (usually) and eyesHairless (usually)No hair on legsHair on bodySome species have hair
AntennaeLong slender antennaeLong antennae, elbowedShort antennae very close together Variable
Leg HairUsually hairy legsLong thin legs with spinesThinner hairless legs, few spinesHairy legsNot always present
EyesEyes on side of headEyes on side of head Large eyes, forward facing Eyes on side of headEyes on side of head
StingingBarbed stinger, stings only once then diesSmooth stinger, can sting multiple times Bites but does not stingSmooth stinger can sting multiple timesSome sting, others are stingless
PollinatingCollects pollen and nectar from flowers to pollinateCollects nectar only from flowersPollinates some plants, e.g.: strawberriesCollects pollen and nectar from flowers to pollinateCollects pollen and nectar to pollinate