Diptera or Hymenoptera? A Little Insect ID

Remember this picture from June 26?


bee on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

A reader commented that it might not be a bumblebee – might not even be in the order Hymenoptera.  These things bug me, so I did a little research.

First, a quick summary of taxonomy: species of organisms are grouped into genera, which are grouped into families, which are grouped into orders, which are grouped into classes, which are grouped into phyla (for animals) or divisions (for plants), which are grouped into kingdoms, which are grouped into domains. (If you’re my age, you learned as a child that all life is in either the plant or animal kingdoms, a notion that was actually discarded before I was born, but I’m not going to sidetrack into the history of taxonomy; let’s just say that classification systems change as scientists learn more.)


bee on narrow-leaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)

There are 30 or so orders within the class Insecta (those wacky taxonomists are always redefining things, so it’s hard to say exactly how many).  One of these is Diptera, which comprises mosquitoes and flies.  Another is Hymenoptera, which comprises bees and wasps.

At this point, you night be wondering, isn’t the creature pictured obviously a bee? Not necessarily.  There are flies, like this one, and for that matter moths, like this one (yet another order, Lepidoptera), that look, superficially at least, a lot like bumblebees. Beespotter.org has a page about bee mimics; it’s an interesting read.

The commenter on my blog pointed out that the insect in question appears to have only two wings, which suggests Diptera.  (That’s what “diptera” means: two wings.  Insects in the Hymenoptera have four wings.)


bee coming in for a landing on basil balm (Monarda clinopodia)

After more hours than I care to admit reading field guides and surfing the internet, I was still at a loss to say what this creature is, mostly because I couldn’t tell from the picture if it has two wings or four.  So I asked the expert: a friend who is an entomologist.  I emailed him the picture with the note “What order is this in? I’m not even going to say what my thinking is here”.  Here’s his reply:

“Hymenoptera. I know you are thinking Diptera, because it looks like it only has one pair of wings, but it actually has 2 pair. Hymenoptera have a series of “hooks” on the trailing edge of the front wing called hamuli, and these serve to link the wings together. You can actually see the two wings in this picture – the notch near the bottom of the “wing” is the demarcation of where the two wings join together. A give away in this photo that this is a bee and not a fly are the antennae, which are long and multi-segmented. Flies have shorter antennae, with fewer segments.”


a brief pause on the morning rounds

So, it’s a bee: class Insecta, order Hymenoptera, family Apidae, genus Bombus.


Bombus (probably) departing Monarda, en route to Erigeron



I wrote a few days ago about becoming fascinated with bees.  Another fascinating subject is spiderwebs.  To get this shot I had to go fully manual (the camera wouldn’t autofocus on a strand of spider silk). That was a first for me. Another first was using the develop function (other than for cropping) in Lightroom.  Here’s the original photo:


I almost stumbled into this spiderweb while photographing basil balm (FotD July 10).

Flower of the Day: Basil Balm

aka Basil Bee-Balm, White Bergamot, White Bee-Balm, White Basil Balm…  Monarda clinopodia; Lamiaceae (mint family)


Despite the word “bergamot” in one of the common names, this species (and others in this genus) has absolutely nothing in common with the oil that flavors your cup of Earl Grey tea (that comes from a citrus fruit).  Many Native American tribes used Monarda species for medicinal teas, though.


Seventeen native species of Monarda can be found in various parts of the continental US.  Basil Balm ranges from Vermont south to Georgia and west to Missouri, though it is endangered in New York and New Jersey.  It grows 3-4 feet tall and is an important food source for bees.  Butterflies like it, too.