If you are new to bee watching, this guide will introduce you to our tips and tricks for watching, identifying, and photographing the bees that you encounter. We will continue to update this page as we learn new techniques and refine old ones. If instead you want to know where to go bee watching, visit this other page on bee habitats.
Table of contents
- A gentle introduction
- Tips for watching bees
- Bee anatomy
- Taxonomy and classification
- Gear & equipment
- Bee photography
- Handling bees
- Attracting bees to your backyard
A gentle introduction
If you are interested in watching bees (probably, because you’re reading this page), then we recommend the following:
- Find a patch of flowers and watch bees. Don’t pressure yourself to make an identification. Just watch them and enjoy yourself. Get comfortable watching tiny fast-moving insects. Many people are afraid of bees at first, but soon realize that bees are actually incredibly gentle. Most of our bees are solitary meaning they have no big hive to defend and, when bees are on flowers, they are only interested in gathering food or finding a mate. If you watch from a foot away, bees won’t pay you any attention.
- Develop a search image, which allows you to pick bees out of a crowded room of countless other insects. Cue into things like size, color, shape, but also sound, flight motion, speed. To test out your search image, try to follow a bee as it moves from flower to flower (this is harder than it sounds). Some bees like bumble bees have a relatively distinct image in flight and on flowers and will be easy to keep track of. Others, like masked bees, are small and wasp-like and can easily get lost amid the commotion. Having a good search image is essential for watching bees – with time, you’ll develop search images for many different kinds of bees.
- When you’re ready to identify wild bees, start with bumble bees. Bumble bees are big with colorful patterns and can be found in many different habitats throughout the year. Pick a common species of bumble bee to find, such as Bombus impatiens, B. griseocollis, or B. bimaculatus. Using the species accounts on this website, study their appearance, habitat associations, and behaviors, then go out and try to find that particular species. If you think you’ve found it, take photos and compare your photos to the field marks that we’ve outlined.
- Repeat for different groups of bees as you become more comfortable. Many distinctive bees are quite common in backyards and parks. As you learn to identify more and more kinds of bees, you might find it helpful to keep lists of what you saw and when. One of the best parts of bee watching is that bees are predictable–if you return to the same place at the same time the following year, you have a very good chance of seeing the same species of bees.
Tips for bee watching
- Make it a practice. The best way to get better at identifying bees in the field is to do it often. Even just five minutes a day works. Take photos and post them to iNaturalist to verify your identifications.
- Use your senses. Look, but also listen. It is often that you hear a bee before seeing it. (But please, don’t taste bees.)
- Integrate field marks. Many of the bees on this website have multiple distinguishing features including phenology, range, appearance, and habitat. Use these features to your advantage! You are likely to run into problems if you try to identify bees by just a single feature alone.
- Know habitat associations. Many bees have tight habitat associations, which helps to narrow down the potential list of suspects. For example, Pseudoanthidium nanum has a preference for urbanized areas and weedy asters, whereas Peponapis pruinosa is almost always found in gardens and agricultural fields containing its squash host plants.
- Time of day is key. Many female bees forage for pollen early in the morning, and become much harder to find in the afternoon. In contrast, other bees, like many Bombus, are easily found throughout the day.
- Taxonomy is your friend. Closely related bees usually resemble each other in shape and general structure. Knowing the evolutionary relationships between bees can help you rule out confusing lookalikes.
- Zoom in, zoom out. Watching bees requires honing in on (sometimes minute) details, but don’t forget to look around at the broader context from time to time to ground your observations in a time and place.
- Beware of expectation. Expectation can distort reality and it’s easy to be convinced that you are seeing the species that you want to see. To combat expectation, write notes, talk out loud (going bee watching with a friend helps), and take photographs from multiple angles. Everything you need to make an identification is there, the key is simply learning to see through the mist.
- Take lots of photos. Reviewing your photos after your return from the field is a great way of learning from your past observations. Posting your photos to iNaturalist is a great way to source knowledge from a large and welcoming community of bee enthusiasts.
Knowing basic bee anatomy will help you better articulate your field observations. The terms highlighted in the following diagrams are used frequently throughout the guide. For a more detailed dive into bee anatomy, we recommend this webpage from IDmyBee and these pages from Sam Droege’s Handy Bee Manual. For a glossary of bee anatomy terms, we recommend this page from Exotic BeeID.
Taxonomy—or the practice of naming and classifying organisms—is a useful system for understanding how bees are related to one another. Often, more closely related bees have similar field marks, so understanding taxonomy is useful when going bee watching. Taxonomy is hierarchical, progressing from coarse classification that contain many species down to the species level. For example, the following diagram outlines the taxonomy of common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens). Bolded groups are explicitly covered by accounts in our field guide.
Taxonomic relationships between species are constantly in flux due to an advent of cheaper, more precise molecular sequencing tools. We strive to keep our guide up-to-date with the most widely accepted bee taxonomy.
All bees belong to the order Hymenoptera, along with wasps, ants, and sawflies. Hymenoptera is one of the most (possibly the most) biodiverse orders of insects in the world. Further, bees are in the suborder Apocrita, which separates them from parasitic Hymenoptera.
Bee families always end in “dae” and are not italicized or included in species names. Family is a broad classification – bee genera that belong to the same family aren’t always obviously similar to one another, but have at least some features in common (for instance, the varied members of the family Megachilidae all carry pollen in a brush of scopal hairs beneath their abdomen rather than on their legs). In the northeast, you can find six taxonomic families of bees.
Subfamily & Tribe
Subfamilies and tribes are even narrower classifications that group together closely-related genera within bee families. Subfamilies end in “-inae” whereas tribes end in “-ini”- neither are italicized. Subfamily and tribe aren’t components of scientific names, they can be quite useful since many contain groups of bee genera that are quite similar to each other, but are easily told from other groups. For instance, the tribe Augochlorini contains the green sweat bee genera Augochlora, Augochlorella, and Augochloropsis – while it can be difficult to differentiate between these genera in the field without getting a very good look or photographs, it’s relatively easy to tell members of this group apart from other halictids.
Genus (plural: genera) is the first half of an organism’s taxonomic name and groups the most closely related species together. In the northeast, some genera of bees contain relatively few representatives whereas others are highly diverse and contain dozens of members. Genera are always italicized. This guide covers nearly 30 bee genera. When listing multiple species belonging to the same genus, we will often abbreviate the genus name to one letter for all but the first species listed (e.g., Colletes inaequalis, C. validus, and C. thoracicus).
Subgenus is only sometimes included in the names of bees, but can be a useful way of distinguishing among groups of bee species within the same genus that are more closely related. Not all bee genera have subgenera, but some, such as Andrena, have many. Bees within a subgenus are often similar in appearance and share aspects of their ecology and/or behavior, making these groupings useful to know when working with bees in the field. In large genera such as Andrena, knowing general characteristics of common subgenera can quickly help to narrow down the possibilities when identifying an unknown bee. Subgenus is not always given in the species name, but if it is, it is also italicized.
Species distinguishes among members of a genus and is the finest taxonomic level covered by our guide . The genus-species binomial scientific name is unique to each kind of bee. No two bees can share the same scientific name. Like genera, species names are also always italicized.
This is an English name given to a bee species. In general, common names do not follow nearly as rigid of a naming system as Latin taxonomic names – common and conspicuous species may have multiple common names, while lesser-known species may have none at all! Common names can be useful for communicating with more general audiences, but can also lead to confusion when the same name is not used consistently to refer to one particular species.
Gear & Equipment
You don’t need any special gear to watch bees. At the very minimum, a keen pair of eyes and a phone camera will do. To become more familiar with the bees around you, we recommend catching bees in a mesh insect net and transferring bees into small plastic vials (we like 12 dram plastic vials like these). Then, you can photograph the bees from a variety of angles. Alternatively, we also like NatureBound bug vacuums for casual bee watching in gardens.
For a bit of an investment, we like Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21 close-focus binoculars. These light-weight binoculars are great for watching insects in gardens since you can get a high resolution view from only a few feet away.
Taking photos of bees allows you to record and study your observations when you’re not in the field. We’ve spent many winter days reviewing our bee photos from the previous year to discover new field marks and to try to identify individuals that puzzled us at the time.
If you are just starting, keep in mind that photographing bees can be really frustrating at first. Bees often move really quickly meaning it can be hard to even get them in the frame. Our advice is to make a habit of photographing bees whenever you go bee watching. Soon, you’ll learn just where to put your shadow so you don’t spook your subject and you’ll learn to anticipate what a bee’s next move is going to be.
- Fill the frame with your subject. One misstep that we see often is taking distant photos of bees, which can result in nicely composed images, but often does not contain the resolution needed for an identification. Filling the frame is usually not a problem when photographing large bees like Bombus. When photographing tiny bees, make sure that you pinch and zoom in on your camera. There are also macro clip-on lenses for your phone that you might consider trying.
- Take photographs (or screenshots of videos) from multiple angles. Bees are three-dimensional, which means that some field marks will not be visible in a two-dimensional photograph. By taking photos from multiple angles, it allows you to capture field marks and refer back to them when making an identification.
- If the bee is moving around a lot, it might be easier to take a video, then take screenshots of those videos. One advantage of taking screenshots is that you can take scrub through the video to grab screenshots from multiple angles.
- Avoid changing light levels abruptly. Bees are very sensitive to changes in light and will flee the scene if you cast a shadow quickly.
- Bees move more slowly in the cold. Take advantages of cool mornings when bees are more likely to move slowly.
You do not need an expensive set up to take identifiable photographs of bees. Phone cameras are perfectly suitable for taking photos that will allow you to identify the bees in our guide.
If you are comfortable netting bees, then you can also transfer captured bees to vials and take photos against a clean background. Make sure your vial is clean to allow for identification. We also like NatureBound bug vacuums which collect bees into clean capture tubes and allow you to photograph bees without having to carry separate nets and vials.
Nearly all of the photographs in this guide were taken by the two of us. The gear we use is:
Max uses: Canon 7D Mark II with 100mm lens and Raynox DCR 250 clip-on magnifier, with Kuangren KX-800 flash and a home-made diffuser. Canon Powershot SX-series point-and-shoot cameras are also a great option.
Nick uses: Canon 7D Mark II with 40mm lens and Raynox DCR 250 clip-on magnifier. He uses a home-made diffuser attached to the built-in flash.
Sometimes it is helpful to hold bees in the hand in order to inspect them with a hand lens or to photograph them with your phone.
Male bees lack stingers, and it is very straightforward to identified males of certain genera like Agapostemon, Melissodes, and Bombus. We routinely hold male bees in between our fingers to photograph them.
While all female bees possess stingers, female Andrena in particular seem to have a very difficult time stinging – we have handled hundreds of individuals without ever being stung. However, we can only speak from our experience, so please experiment with caution!
If you are even possibly allergic to bee stings, do not try handling bees! Also be mindful that males and females of some bee genera (especially parasitic ones such as Nomada and Triepeolus) can be quite similar – if in doubt, examine your bee in a vial!
Attracting bees to your backyard
Watching bees in gardens and backyards can be immensely rewarding, not only because many of the species that occur in those habitats are easily identified to species, but also because bee watching can help you connect with nature close to home.
Bird feeding has soared in popularity in the U.S. over the past century, with more than 50 million Americans today involved in the practice. Bird feeding brings birds out of hiding and allows us to marvel at their beauty and fascinating behaviors. One of the most salient lessons from bird feeding is that different birds are attracted to different types of feeds. Grains like cracked corn are great at attracting sparrows and starlings whereas oil-rich seeds like sunflower seeds are excellent at attracting jays and cardinals, nyjer seeds attract finches and juncos, and blocks of suet are rarely found without woodpeckers.
Gardens are bee feeders. Bees get food (nectar and pollen) from flowers and will travel to your garden (or even live there!) to find their favorite food. Plant purple coneflower and you’ll attract bicolored striped-sweat bee. Plant sunflowers and you’ll attract sunflower longhorn bees and pugnacious leafcutter bees. Plant native thistles and you’ll attract golden northern bumble bees and thistle longhorn bees. Plant goldenrods and asters and you’ll attract silky striped-sweat bees, Drury’s longhorn bee, and hairy-banded mining bees. The list goes on. Your landscaping decisions directly influence the diversity of bees that you find in your garden.
To increase bee diversity in your garden, plant a diversity of flowers, ideally ones that are native to your ecoregion. Visit our resources pages for tips on planting a garden to attract bees.