Photo: How to tell a bee from a wasp from a fly

The Syrphid fly or hover fly has two wings, large eyes and short antenna. They are good pollinators and the larvae eat pest insects. They do not sting or bite. (Credit: Ian Jacobs via Flickr)

Can you tell the difference between bees, wasps and flies?

I met Lora Morandin with Pollinator Partnership who helped me sort out the buzz from the sting from the pesky.

Why know the difference?

Some people panic and kill beneficial insects. And that's a problem, because:

  • More than half of native bee species in North America are declining and almost one-quarter are at risk of extinction. The western bumblebee (look for the cute white bum), for example, is at risk of extinction.
  • We rely on managed honeybees and the 20,000-plus species of wild bees. They help plants reproduce, create berries and seeds for wildlife, and pollinate about one in three of the food items we eat!  
  • Flies and wasps are part of nature's cleaning crew. Some are pollinators and eat pests. (Some flies and wasps become pests when their numbers increase in urban areas.)
  • Native bees rarely sting people and almost never become "pesky." 
  • Wasps eat aphids!

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Ten clues to identifying bees, wasps and flies

Is the insect...

  1. Interested in your food? It's a fly or a wasp. Bees are vegetarians. They eat pollen and nectar from flowers. They're not interested in what you're barbecuing.
  2. Cute? It's probably a bee! Male bumblebees even have moustaches. Wasps and flies have antennae lower on the face. (Tip from: Elizabeth Elle with Simon Fraser University)
  3. Hairless, shiny, with four, long, narrow wings, a bright-coloured abdomen and interested in your food? Likely a wasp (e.g., a yellow jacket or paper wasp). Wasps are carnivores — they eat meat, aphids and caterpillars.
  4. Inside a flower? Probably a bee! A wasp is more likely to be under leaves or flowers hunting for aphids. (Tip from: Elizabeth Elle with Simon Fraser University)
  5. Stinging you? If it has a long, streamlined body with a thin "waist" it's likely a wasp. Bees are chubby. Native bees don't sting unless they become trapped in clothing or you disturb a nest. Even then, most won't sting.  
  6. Coming out of a paper or mud nest hanging from a tree or your house? It's a wasp. 
  7. Carrying pollen on its back legs or under its belly? It's a bee. Wasps and flies don't carry pollen.
  8. Has only two wings (one on each side)? Probably a fly. Wasps and bees have four wings, two on each side.
  9. Has large, bulging eyes, short antennae and two wings? It's a fly. (Pay attention: Some flies are bumblebee mimics!)
  10. Has a long "stinger"? Probably a wasp. But it can't sting! What looks like a stinger is an ovipositor, used to deposit eggs. Bee and wasp stingers evolved from ovipositors. 

We need these critters. And we can all do something about what's causing their decline: habitat destruction, pesticide use, urbanization and climate change.

What's your secret to coexisting with bees, wasps and flies?


Lindsay Coulter, a fellow Queen of Green

April 5, 2017

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Apr 08, 2017
7:35 PM

Commercial wasp traps — you add water and hang up. It makes a rotten meat odour which really attracts wasps and costs around $10 Thecwasp crawls in and drowns. Hang it a bit away from and off to the side of your patio or outdoor work space. My husband is really allergic to a certain wasp sting although we don’t know which one exactly . PS I love bees , they are so busy and cute! It’s neat to watch them collecting pollen bobbing from flower to flower heavy and round looking (I don’t understand how the bubble bee can even fly!)

Apr 06, 2017
8:44 PM

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the pictured fly in New West, but it’s sure cute! When wasps enter my home, I close nearby doors to keep it going further, close venetian blinds and curtains so it won’t get stuck there, and try to have the exit door as the only bright area, so it can see the way out better. Then I put sugar under my fingernail and try to lure it to walk onto my finder. Then I carry it outside. The feet prickle and tickle when it hangs on, or the ‘beak’ picks out the grains of sugar. If I walk smoothly enough, I can usually take the calm wasp to the outdoors within a few minutes. If they get stuck between window and blinds, I have to leave the window open wide so they can hopefully find their way out before overheating. I’ve never been harmed.

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