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, but a bee mimic?
  Published:  12 Jun 2018    |      2 minute read

In glorious springtime, our gardens and parks are awash with insects. Bees, a firm favourite of ours, come out strong, after all ‘tis the season to pollinate.

But is the bee you’re seeing actually a bee? Nature, in all its beauty and trickery, homes many insects that look like bees. We’ve created a guide to help you spot the real bees from the bee lookalikes, aka bee mimics.

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. 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.

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 are easily confused with wool carder bees.

Parasitic fly (Tachina fera) on a white flower.
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. There are 9 species of social wasps in the UK – they're the ones you normally see buzzing around your ice cream.

wasp on tree
Credit: Jared Belson/ https://pestpush.com

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.

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) on flower
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.

The Friends of the Earth Bee Saver Kit is the ideal fun gift for friends, family, or yourself. Plus, it helps bees at the same time.

The Friends of the Earth Bee Saver Kit is the ideal fun gift for friends, family, or yourself. Plus, it helps bees at the same time.