What's the difference between a honey bee and a bumble bee?

Because I have, in the past, illustrated a story about honey bees with a picture of a bumble bee, I am posting this handy chart, put together by biologist Alex Wild, as a form of penance.


  1. They act differently, too.  When  I see bumblebees, they are alone and usually hanging around the corners of my house and will buzz around me occasionally as if they’re guarding it, but have never stung me.  They bumble around.

    I usually see lots of honeybees together gathering pollen on a flower of some kind, and they might sting you if you mess around with them enough.

  2. I didn’t really know that bumble bees and honey bees were different. I discovered it when I handed in an essay in French in which I’d interchanged the two terms (bourdon and abeille) several times for a bit of linguistic variety. (The essay was about Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah, not biology, I hasten to add!) It was well doused in red ink by the time I got it back.

  3. Love bumblers in my back yard. They don’t mind being examined closely and sometimes touched. Wife taught me to not be afraid of them. Thanks, Wife! Bok bok!

  4. The real question is: How do you tell the difference between a honey bee and an africanized honey bee?

    1. The Africanized Honey Bee is currently stinging you, along with 300 of its buddies. 

      I like watching bees (naturally).  But when they become a bee sharp they usually end up as a bee flat.

    2. With a DNA test–they look the same. And the aggressiveness of Africanized bees is much exaggerated, in my humble opinion, having worked with many beehives here in Los Angeles.

  5. I’ve been going to pains to ensure that my four-year-old son knows the difference between honeybees and bumblebees.  Mostly our yard has bumblebees; I’ve noticed a nest in one of the fence-posts, but it can’t be the only one.

  6. Now can we have another chart illustrating the differences between the honey, the bumble and the boo?

  7. Also: Bumblebees can’t fly. 

    In my backyard, it’s pretty obvious which ones are honey bees and which ones are bumble bees. It’s also not that important, since they’re both pretty mellow and just want the nectar, man. 

    It’s the honey bee/yellow jacket identification that needs to be better, since they’re a lot closer to the same shape, and the yellow jackets are nasty. (Basically, yellow jackets are scavengers, and a more caution yellow and black, where the honey bees just like the flowers and are more honey colored.)

  8. You both missed a very important difference – bumblebee’s don’t sacrifice their lives when stinging a predator (or us), so bumblebee’s really need to be treated like wasps in their attack patterns more so than honeybees. Bumblebee’s can sting repeatedly. I learned this when trying to remove a large bumblebee nest in my yard two years ago….

    1. In my experience, though, bumblebees take a lot more provocation to sting. They’ll do it for a nest, but you can touch them on flowers, and if they really mind they’ll only fly away.

      I’d like to know more about the differences in behavior. The dance of the honeybee is famous, but some other colonial bees use scent markers instead. Do bumblebees do either, or do they each forage on their own? I haven’t seen a definitive answer.

      1. In my experience, though, bumblebees take a lot more provocation to sting. They’ll do it for a nest, but you can touch them on flowers, and if they really mind they’ll only fly away.

        That’s my experience too. My family used to keep honeybees, and I’ve been stung plenty of times (and not just when stealing their food). But you can practically pet bumble bees and they’ll just sit there.

        The worst though: yellow jackets and white face hornets. They sting with no provocation at all. And, they build ground nets, which is just unfair in my opinion.

    2. Oh no.  I have have (mis)spent my life believing that bumblebees could not sting!  Gah.  I’ve pet them and held them but I guess, all of the bumblebees I’ve encountered were not threatened by my ignorance.  

  9. Easy.

    That fuzzy black and yellow airship that just sputtered by loud enough to leave your left ear ringing?

    That was a bumblebee. (We grow ’em pretty big around these parts…)

      1. I understand that despite the tarantula’s size, a praying mantis can make quick work of disabling the spider too.  My father used to tell a story about seeing just such a match.

        In a smackdown between a praying mantis in one corner and a Tarantula hawk in the other, where would you put your money?  I’ve read that the preying mantis can take a lot of venom, and even lose a foreleg and keep going.


      2. Thank you for upping my barefoot paranoia another notch. At least I have never seen a Tarantula Hawk around.

        1. They’re not aggressive, although they are friendly. They’re also huge and airborne, unlike cow killers which are small and wander around where you can step on them.

  10. Never had a problem telling honey bees from bumble bees.  It’s carpenter bees I can’t tell from bumble bees.

  11. I <3 bumblebees.

    I also <3 honey bees.

    I also also <3 those little black-and-white bee-looking critters that swarm around a couple of the plants in my backyard, but disdain the other flowers – good enough for hoi polloi maybe, but not for them!

    I, however, have nothing but hatred in my heart for the insidious menace that is yellow jackets.  get off my burger, you bastards! *shakes fist*

  12. I disagree with the “workers uniformly medium sized” bit.  That’s true if your local beekeepers are using foundation.  If they’re using natural comb, or if there’s a feral hive nearby, you’ll see honey bee workers of all different kinds of sizes.  Granted, none as large (or should I say, wide) as a bumble bee, but you will see some that are surprisingly tiny, and some that are almost as big as (honey bee) drones.

  13. Mr. Wild seems to have missed one identifying characteristic.

    Bumbling? Honeybees: no. Bumblebees: yes.

  14. I can’t imagine confusing the two.  Bumblebees are about three times as big around as honey bees.

    Also, no mention of the fact that dumbledore is another word for bumblebee?

  15. There may be a regional thing going on, too.  Only a few years ago did I find out that this is a bumble bee.  Since childhood I had always heard them called yellowjackets, and actual yellowjackets just called wasps, or mud-dobbers.  Honeybees we called bumblebees.  (Cincinnati area)

  16. I opened my window once, for some fresh air, as one does, and also my dormer window (window in the roof: skylight).

    After a while, I heard a bee buzzing against the dormer window. It was an unusually light-coloured honey-bee. I pushed the dormer open wider and it flew away. After, of course, uselessly bashing its head against the now-completely-open glass for a while longer, because “Hey! Glass! Whoooo!”.

    Then I heard it again, so I guided it out again.

    And again. OK, closed the dormer window, this time.

    And I heard it again. It must have got in through the curtained main window, into the darkened room, then up to the main light source: the dormer. I moved it out, once more, closed both windows, and watched for it to come back. Within seconds it did, banging against the window.

    Then I realised, as several of its pale friends joined it against my window, what was really happening. They, of course, were different bees. Many different bees, all so pale yellow they were almost white. The only ones I could see were the ones on my window, and those flying towards my window. None were visible on any of the flowers in the garden below me, though there were bumblebees.

    Here’s what I’m guessing happened.

    My window is approximately level with the railway line on the embankment that it faces. The garden between is in a sort of dip, filled with leafy trees. If a bee were flying over the railway line towards me, it might be forgiven for not noticing that the ground was dropping away: the top of the foliage remains roughly level with that railway line ad my window.

    So, I suspect a bee found the delicious flowers in the garden below me, flew back to the nest, danced the directions, but only the steps for “about four feet above the ground, two hundred yards in THAT direction” without the cautionary ass-wiggle for “oh and hey watch out, the ground drops away after the railway embankment”. So, instead of hitting the flowers, a steady stream of bees hit my window.

  17. I’ve always found it odd that people don’t know the difference.  Or that people are scared of bumblebees (e.g. my wife). Bees eat nectar, they don’t care about you.  Unlike wasps, which like anything sweet (e.g. your ice cream).


    bright yellow stripes = wasp (or yellowjacket in USA) = AVOID
    dull orange stripes = honeybee
    big hairy bugger that can barely get off the ground = bumblebee

    I suppose there are several varieties of bumblebee (from the smallish red-tailed ones to the giant white-tailed ones), but honestly.  I suppose they do tend to build solitary nests in soil, which can shock people when they’re gardening and suddenly a huge bee leaps out at them.

    I should also add:

    small hovering fly with yellow stripes and flat abdomen = hoverfly (a common non-stinging wasp-mimic in the UK)

    The amount of people I’ve seen panic over a harmless hoverfly is ridiculous. They don’t even look like wasps unless you really squint.

  18. Here in the Northeast the yellow jackets are, without a doubt, the nastiest wasp/bees we deal with.  Honeybees and Bumblebees are very benign, but those yellow jackets will sting without provocation.  Carnivorous, too….seen them feeding on mice carcasses in the woods.   A few months ago, I was doing some garden work and I hit a nest in the ground…before I knew it I had a 1/2 dozen sting me – it’s like a little piece of molten hot steel burning through your skin.  For an old guy, it’s amazing how fast I could exit the area.   The nest paid the price later that evening…..

    1. those yellow jackets will sting without provocation.  Carnivorous, too….seen them feeding on mice carcasses in the woods.

      That’s why people complain about them at picnics and barbeques.  They come to the smell of meat.

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