Identifying A Bees Nest

Last Updated on February 14, 2022

I get calls so often where people say “There are bees in my garden come and take them away”. Nearly 50% of these bees turn out to be hornets, wasps, carpenter bees, and once or twice ants and termites!! Identifying a bee’s nest is an important skill for beekeepers, as it determines the method you use to “solve the problem”. Let’s have a look at some methods for identifying a bee’s nest. We will look at methods over the phone, and physical inspection methods when you arrive on site.

Identifying A Bees Nest

There are many creatures out there that a jumpy person may mistakenly think are bees. Identifying a bee’s nest is an important skill for us as beekeepers. You will find there are times of the year when you will receive many calls as a beekeeper. They normally start something like this, “Hi, you don’t know me, but somebody said you can help me with bees. The bees have been here for XYZ months, and I am scared my child/wife/husband/dog/cat will get stung….”

At this point, they are about to tell you their entire life history, the number of kids they have, their financial status, and so on. When people phone beekeepers they for some or other reasons think we want to know this stuff. Cut in politely at this point and say “Wow that’s great, you have some sort of insect there. Let us run a diagnostic to see what they are.”

Identifying A Bees Nest Over The Phone

Questions First Round:

Where are the bees? How long have they been there? Can you send me a picture of the nest? With modern media, you can get people to send a Whatsapp/Facetime/Telegram/Signal, etc picture to you. I normally ask them to send me a video.

This allows you to work out if this is a swarm, or if they are even bees at all.

Questions Second Round:

Can you see if the bees have pollen on their legs? Are they in a hole or a tree, or some other thing? Is the thing they are in removable? Eg. a dog kennel.

Based on these answers you should get a bit of a feel for it. There are some people who are so scared they send you a video or photograph that is shakey and useless. Based on what they told you, you should be able to get an idea if this is a beehive, a yellow jacket nest, a bumblebee nest, or some other hornet or wasp nest.

Identifying Bees With A Site Inspection

Light your smoker. If you want to, put on a bee suit. This really makes a nice show if you are trying to get people to pay for your services removing bees. Bee suits do little to stop yellow jackets, hornet, or wasp stings – but they do help stop bee and bumble bee stings. Bee suits also get you shared on social media.

Approach the area where the problem insects are. Apply a bit of smoke and run this diagnostic:

Pollen on legs, small = honeybees or solitary bees.

Pollen on legs, small, going into a hole, many bees = honeybees – bee removal needed.

Pollen on legs, small, going into a hole, one or two bees. Small hole in a log. Solitary bee nest. Remove log.

Pollen on legs, large, going into a hole, many bees – bumblebees. Bumblebee removal.

Pollen on legs, large, going into a hole in a log or piece of wood – not many bees – carpenter bee. Remove log.

No Pollen on legs – going into the hole – wasps, hornets. Perform yellow jacket removal, or suggest yellow jacket remover. Yellowjackets are evil.

Bee Or Wasp Nest Identification

As per the above, we have used the presence or absence of pollen on legs to determine if we have a wasp/hornet nest, or a beehive. Or a bumblebee nest. Wasps and hornets do not collect pollen. Bees do.

Beehive vs Wasp Nest

I am not scared of bees at all. I have been stung 35 000 plus times in my life and a bee sting is just a minor irritation. However, wasps are a different story. Wasp stings can actually permanently damage you.

Wasps such as the Great Black wasp are digger wasps. They can sting through a bee suit and a pair of jeans very easily. The stings themselves hurt but do not swell like a bee sting. However, these wasps can sting repeatedly…

Wasps such as the Great Black

Spider Wasps

Special mention goes to the spider wasps. These wasps hunt spiders – sometimes very big spiders such as baboon spiders or tarantulas. Any insect that can attack and disable an 8 legged fast-moving spider the size of your hand is packing some powerful sting capacity. I have been stung by these a number of times and each time I had to go and roll around on the ground a bit and act like a fool. It is that painful. You cannot think. Just pain.

The Spider wasps score a solid 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. In comparison, honeybees and yellow jackets are a 2. Spider wasps also really try to actually sting deep into you – they ram that stinger into the muscle, and you find your whole leg goes a bit lame. A bee sting just hurts – it does not affect the muscles below very much.

Spider Wasps

Summary – if you have identified that you have a wasp nest, and the wasps are something you cannot identify exactly, rather call a wasp expert. You can get really messed up by wasps!! Bees are for beekeepers, wasps for wasp experts.

Different Types Of Bees Nests

If we have identified that we actually have honeybees, then let’s try and identify a couple of common types of bests they make (other than in our manmade beehives).

The Tree Swarm

Sometimes bees will actually build a nest in the open – hanging from a building, or from a tree. These rare outdoor swarms do not fare well in winter, but in some areas, the bees can get strong enough that they literally cover the hive with propolis. These propolis hives can survive a relatively cold winter – I have seen such hives survive a month of snow and make it.

The Cavity Nest

Bees find the most bizarre places to make nests. Every time I write about this I remember another weird place I have taken bees out of in the past three decades. Top list of weird places: Inside a whale skull in front of a museum. Inside an elephant skill in front of a game reserve. And don’t forget Samson’s lion incident.

You can see more on how to remove these here.


I hope this article has helped you in identifying a bee’s nest. Bee or wasp nest identification is the bane of beekeepers’ lives, given those phone calls we get. Hope you enjoyed this and please share if you did!