A Hoverfly visiting blue forget-me-not flowers

Bee mimics – insects that look like bees but are not

How many types of bees can you name? Tree bumblebees, Leafcutter bees, Honeybees – the list goes on. But when is a bee not a bee? When it’s a lookalike.
  12 Jun 2018    |      5 min

There are insects trying to pass off as bees and make you look like a fool in front of your friends – or worse, your kids. They're even trying to infiltrate our Great British Bee Count.

Fear not, our guide to bee lookalikes – aka bee mimics – will separate the wannabes from the real bees.

Is it a bee, or a big black flying bug that looks like a bee?

Identifying bee mimics

Some harmless insects mimic bees to trick predators into thinking they’re armed with a sting. Others are relatives that have a pretty convincing family resemblance.

Hoverflies (Syrphidae)

Drone fly on yellow flower
Drone fly on yellow flower
Credit: Donald Windley (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most bee-lookalikes are hoverflies. These harmless flies cannot sting. Some hoverflies resemble solitary bees or honeybees such as Drone flies. But watch out, there are also hairy species that mimic bumblebees. Check out the costume on this Bumblebee hoverfly.

A Bumblebee hoverfly on a green leaf
Female Bumblebee hoverfly
Credit: Sharp Photography (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Convincing, yes. Impossible to identify? No. hoverflies generally have small, short antennae, whereas bees have long and more obvious ones. They're wannabes in disguise. But go easy on them, because like bees they're expert pollinators that will make your garden bloom.

Differences between hoverflies and bees

Hoverfly characteristics:

  • 1 pair of wings (Bees have 2 – difficult to spot when folded)
  • No narrow waist
  • Short antennae
  • Eyes that cover most of their head (sometimes meeting in the middle)
  • No biting mouthparts (mandibles)
  • Often hover in mid-air

Bee-flies (Bombylius)

Another fly in bee’s clothing. These brown hairy flies look rather like Brown carder bumblebees and male Hairy-footed flower bees. Masters of disguise, they also feed from the same flowers with a jerky, hovering flight.

Bee fly on white flower
Bee fly on white flower
Credit: PxHere

You absolutely can't miss their long proboscis or ‘tongue’. It's permanently stretched out which is a massive give away – bees tuck theirs in when not feeding.

Bee-flies fling their eggs into holes dug by Mining bees. Then their young, or "larvae", feast on the bees' pollen stores.

Spotting these insects won't win you any points during the Great British Bee Count. But you can submit your sightings to Bee-fly Watch.

Differences between bee-flies and bees

Bee-fly characteristics:

    • Long tongue always outstretched
    • Single pair of wings – never folded
    • Short antennae
    • No narrow waist
    • Very long, thin legs
    • No biting mouthparts (mandibles)
    • Eyes that cover most of their head (sometimes meeting in the middle)
    • Often hover in mid-air

    Parasitic flies (Tachinidae)

    You'd be forgiven for mistaking these big, bristly things for bees. Tachina grossa, one of Britain’s largest flies, could definitely sneak into a party for Black bumblebees. The yellow-sided Tachina fera have been confused with Wool carder bees in previous bee counts.

    Parasitic fly (Tachina fera)
    Parasitic fly (Tachina fera)
    Credit: Jean gadeyne (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Like bees and hoverflies the adults are pollinators. But they're not called parasitic for nothing. They lay their eggs on other insects, such as caterpillars which the resulting larvae then feed on.

    Differences between parasitic flies and bees

    Parasitic fly characteristics:

    • Most are bristly rather than hairy
    • Single pair of wings- never folded
    • Short antennae
    • No narrow waist
    • Bulbous head
    • Eyes cover most of head
    • No biting mouthparts (mandibles)

    Wasps (Aculeata)

    Wasps are bee’s closest relatives. Actually, this might shock you, but bees are really a group of wasps. Say what? There are 9 species of social wasps in the UK – they're the ones you normally see buzzing around your beer or ice cream, and generally reducing grown adults into screaming messes.

    wasp on tree
    Wasp

    In addition there around 270 species of non-aggressive solitary wasps. These nest in holes in the ground, in deadwood and in bee hotels.

    Wasps are generally balder and more brightly-coloured – but telling them apart from bees simply by appearance isn't easy. Some bees, like Nomad bees, have even evolved to mimic wasps.

    Behaviour can be a clue. Wasps gather animal matter to feed their larvae, such as insects, spiders and meat. None of our bees eat these things. Social wasps will also scrape wood and dead stems for nest material.

    Contrary to popular belief, wasps are useful to have around. Not only do they pollinate, they also hunt pests like caterpillars, aphids and planthoppers. Read more about wasps.

    Differences between wasps and bees

    Wasp characteristics:

    • Bald or sparsely-haired
    • Bright yellow markings
    • Narrow feet
    • Social wasps and potter wasps can roll their wings at rest.

    Bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus)

    A bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus)
    Bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus)
    Credit: gailhampshire (CC BY 2.0)

    Even this species of scarab beetle is at it. Though I'm less convinced about its disguise, which is more beetle-in-a-bee-suit than long-lost-brother.

    Bee beetles are scarce in Britain – turning up occasionally in the south and east of the country.

    Put your new skills to good use

    Now you know your flies from your hives. And it's time to test just how good you think you are. What are you waiting for? Put your real bee sightings on our map by joining the Great British Bee Count.

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