Bees, Wasps, and Flies: Telling the Difference Between the Pollinators in Your Garden

Paper wasp
July 2, 2016

The plants in our prairie are in full bloom. If you have a garden of your own, you’ve probably noticed it, too. You’ve probably also noticed lots insect buzzing around, including bees. Although the fear of bees is one of the most common fears, you shouldn’t be startled or scared to see bees buzzing around your garden.

Bees are vital pollinators. They are responsible for as much as $5.2 billion of agriculture production in the US alone, and 75% of all the food we eat benefits from pollination. Seeing them in your garden means that they recognize your plants as a food source, and it means that you’re doing your part to help pollinators. That said, there are some other flying insects that are easily mistaken for bees. While most are pollinators, some are more effective than others.

Here’s a quick guide to help you identify who has been buzzing around your flowers.

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  • Honey bees are wonderful pollinators of a wide variety of flowers in the garden.
  • They are usually not aggressive. Bees that are out foraging among flowers for nectar and pollen usually sting only if stepped on or swatted. 
  • They are more aggressive if you approach their nest as stinging is primarily a defense to protect their brood. If they’re in your garden, you should be okay as they are happy minding their own business. If a swarm gathers, contact the Chicago Honey Co-Op for removal.
  • Workers can only sting once, and they are reluctant to do so.
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  • Some flowers, such as snapdragons, are much better pollinated by bumble bees because they can do buzz pollination where they forcefully vibrate and shake the pollen off of the anthers.
  • They are usually not aggressive. They nest underground, and may sting in defense if directly handled or if nest is threatened.
  • They can sting more than once so be mindful of nests. Try to accommodate them as much as possible, if they’ve chosen your garden or yard as their nesting point.
Paper wasp 1

Photo: Robb Hannawacker

  • While they will visit flowers to drink nectar and can be responsible for some pollination, paper wasps are primarily carnivores. They can help take care of garden pests and do eat other insects, such as caterpillars.
  • Paper wasps such as yellow jackets can be aggressive if threatened or if you approach their nest. They can be aggravated by swatting.
  • Can sting multiple times and more painful than that of a honey bee.
Sweatbee 1

Photo: Cazody

  • There are many native species that fall under the name “sweat bee”. All species are important pollen feeders and pollinators of native, wild plants.
  • They can be attracted to perspiration, hence their name.
  • They are a smaller species and are mostly solitary.
  • Likely only sting if disturbed, not very painful feels like a slight prick.
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Photo: Patrick Coffey

  • While not a bee or wasp at all these mimics can be important pollinators of plants that benefit most from fly pollination. The maggots are also voracious predators known as aphid lions and are excellent at controlling garden pests like aphids.
  • Can be seen hovering around flowers and sometimes will land on your skin.
  • Cannot sting as they do not possess stingers.
Leaf cutter

Photo: gailhampshire (CC-BY-2.0)

  • Leaf-cutter bees are another important native pollinator. Larger than sweat bees, but smaller than honey bees, these bees collect pollen on their bellies and will cut circular sections from leaves to build their nests from.
  • A solitary species.
  • Can sting more than once but are not aggressive and unlikely to sting.

Photo: Adam Kranz

  • While these incredibly large wasps will visit flowers and feed on nectar they are not very active pollinators. Adult cicada killers will hunt down and paralyze cicadas, then bring them back to their underground nest and feed their young.
  • Although they can be intimidating, cicada killers are not aggressive and will very rarely sting only when handled or stepped on.
  • Even if stung, it’s been described to feel no worse than a pinprick.

Photo: Julia Klooster

  • Like paper wasps, are primarily carnivorous but adults also drink nectar and engage in some pollination.
  • Create nests out of mud, can often be found on the sides of buildings. Mud daubers will fill their nests with spiders to feed their young.
  • Non aggressive and will rarely sting if aggravated.
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Although they all contribute to the ecology of a garden, some species of pollinators can occasionally cause a problem when they choose to nest in a poor location. If you spot a nest or hive that you feel may directly impact your safety, please contact a professional pest removal service.

Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

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