Insects that look like bumblebees

On this page, carpenter bees - mason bees - honeybees - wasps - wood wasps, horntail - hoverflies - flies - moths

Carpenter bees

Xylocopa violacea, carpenter bee

Carpenter bees have powerful mandibles (jaws) that can dig tunnels in wood. Xylocopa violacea (above), a huge (20-23 mm long), black bee found in central and southern Europe nests in dead wood and digs a tunnel up to 30 cm long containing 10-15 cells. This bee holds the record for laying the largest egg of any insect.

Carpenters are found in many parts of the world, and there is a bee almost identical to this commonly found in the USA. Naturally a large number of carpenter nests in the structural support of a building will cause some damage, but this is unusual.

carpenter bees and miner bees

One behaviour can be alarming though. The males compete with other males to mate with females. This involves them chasing males away and chasing females to mate. During these chases they zoom about crashing into windows, people and anything else in their path. Humans in the way of all this may think they are under attack, they are not, they are just in the way. Males may also hang around waiting for adult females to emerge, and again they behave in what might seem to us as an aggressive way, by chasing other males away and investigating anything that gets near the exit hole. This something may be your head, you will be buzzed around and checked out to see if you are a rival that needs chasing away or a female that needs mating. However there is no danger as males cannot sting, so like much male mating behaviour it's all bluster and show.

Mason bees

Mason bee Anthophora sp.

These bees will nest in almost any cavity which they can modify in shape with earth or other materials to suit their requirements. Some species specialise in nesting inside snail shells, and there is a tiny species that nests in the holes left by wood worm beetles. The European species Osmia rufa, now known as Osmia bicornis, is often found nesting in old nail holes and in the mortar of old walls. Others, like Anthophora retusa, above construct cells using clay, sand, earth and chalk, and earth mixed with wood - whatever is at hand. In towns their nests can often be found between two bricks in walls. Anthophora retusa looks like a small, dark bumblebee, but she has orange-coloured hairs on her hind legs. In the UK this bee appears in the early spring.

Honey bees

adult honey bee

Above is the honey bee. It is not nearly as hairy as the bumblebee, and is usually smaller.


Wasp queen

Above is a wasp. They have the same colouring as some bumblebees, but they do not have much hair. There are various species around the world that have the same yellow and black striped colouring, and they range in size from 10 - 30 mm long.

Wood wasp or horntail

wood wasp, female

Above is the wood wasp or horntail. It has similar colouring to some bumblebees, and its speedy flight make it hard to see that it is not hairy. These insects do appear very frightening, but they are completely harmless. They range in size (depending on sex and species from 12 - 44 mm long. The two long bits sticking out the back are the ovipositor (longest) and the tail which gives the animal it name. This is a female, males fly a tree top height and are rarely seen.


Criorhina berberina

Above and below are hoverflies. Some of these are excellent mimics of bumblebees. Some can even buzz like a bumblebee, but all of them have just one pair of wings, and none of them can sting.

Volucella bombylans


long-tongued fly drinking nectar

Above is a fly from the USA with a very long tongue (the black thing between its front legs) drinking nectar. Its behaviour is similar to bumblebees, but it has far fewer hairs, and only one pair of wings. This photograph was sent in by Leona M. Goettel, who has kindly given her permission for to use it on this page.


Hemaris officinalis

Above is a moth found in North America called Hemaris thysbe. Because of its hovering habit whilst drinking nectar it can be mistaken for a bumblebee. There are a number of similar day-flying moths such as the bumblebee hawkmoth in Europe which are commonly mistaken for bumblebees, mainly because they are so difficult to get a good look at. They have a wingspan of 3.2 - 5.0 cm.

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