• A bee and a wasp that are not

    by  • November 15, 2010 • Wildlife • 63 Comments

    Do you remember H bees?

    I took photographs of these two, a bee and a wasp,  today.  I was reminded of when I was a child in Orange County, CA, when we used to catch what we called ‘H’ bees in our hands.  After seeing the bees with the Hs on their backs we would know that they would not sting us.

    Eristalis tenax, Drone Fly

    Drone Fly, Eristalis tenax.   Children call them ‘H’ bees.

    Today, I thought I’d look up what kind of bee an H bee was, but was surprised to find no mention of it on Google, other than one person asking if anyone remembered them, saying that they had held them too, long, long ago.

    Is there such a thing?  Answer: Surprisingly, this bee and wasp are actually hover flies or flower flies in the Animal Family Syrphidae.

    Not a bee, a Drone Fly, Eristalis tenax

    Not a bee, a Drone Fly, Eristalis tenax

    This “bee” is a drone fly, Eristalis tenax, sometimes called an “H” bee or “H” fly due to the H pattern at the top front of its abdomen.

    Syrphus, Hover Fly

    Syrphid Hover Fly on a late Autumn Rudbeckia

    This “wasp” is also a hover fly, probably in the genus Syrphus.

    Syrphus Hover Fly

    Syrphid Hover Fly, peering over the top of the flower

    University of California, Davis’ BugGuide web site is a wonderful resource for checking IDs and viewing additional images of these insects here.

    Thanks to Professor Emeritus Robbin Thorp, Department of Entomology, University of California, Davis for the ID.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    63 Responses to A bee and a wasp that are not

    1. November 15, 2010 at 11:32 am

      I hadn’t seen a honeybee mimic that looked so similar before. I had to do a double take even though I’m a beekeeper!

      • Sue Langley
        November 15, 2010 at 10:00 am

        Eliza, aren’t they similar looking?
        I don’t usually attempt such close up photos without a tripod, but was taking this Black-eyed Susan (is it that or a Gloriosa daisy…or both?) when thes two showed up. I deleted the twenty that were out of focus. Hey, I was amazed at the texture of the flower center…like a brown brillo pad.

    2. November 15, 2010 at 6:13 pm

      I have seen and photographed both of these in my yard, but I had no idea they weren’t bees. Thank you for educating me!

      • Sue Langley
        November 15, 2010 at 7:20 pm

        Gayle, I hadn’t either,…this was fun to look into.

    3. November 15, 2010 at 6:15 pm

      Great photos! We did a Syrphid Fly post a few weeks ago, and honestly, while researching that post, I was amazed at the variety of Syrphids, and their expert mimicry. Some just look like little hornets, others the spitting image of honey bees or bumbles. They really are a fascinating group of highly beneficial insects. At the moment they’re all over our wallflowers, just like they are favoring your Susans at the moment. Did you know that some species of Syrphids have larvae that eat aphids? I was sold on these friendly fellows when I learned that! We could use a whole lot less aphids!

      • Sue Langley
        September 15, 2010 at 7:20 pm

        Claire…very interesting info. Thanks!
        It was a pleasure, too, to get a kind reply to my email thrown out to Prof. Thorp. Neat!

    4. November 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm

      You had me fooled. Even looking closely, I’d confuse them for something with stingers. I’ll have to spend more time at the UC Davis site, though it’s a tad sad to seem a quarter of the specimens with pins through their bodies. Kudos to you for finding a better way to keep them in focus in your photos.

    5. Paul Griffo
      June 4, 2011 at 5:21 am

      What a fun memory. We used to catch them and hold them in our bare hands when we were kids in So Cal. The rule was, “always look for the H, because those are the bees that don’t sting.”

      • Sue Langley
        June 4, 2011 at 9:14 am

        Thanks for your comment, Paul! I grew up in OC and we did the same thing and had the same ‘rule’! I always had thought they were bees until I found this one in my garden and looked into it. We had horny toads and ant lions, too, in our backyard. In the 60s we made our own fun. lol!

      • Liz
        August 11, 2013 at 5:38 pm

        My brother and I were talking about this today, so I googled it and your posts came up. We lived in Fullerton, CA and used to fnd them and tie threads to their legs as well! My grandfather had told us they were a type of fly. I recently saw one here in Washington. My husband and I are visiting the Marblemount area on the Skagit River in our RV. I saw one and was reminded of my childhood experiences and was telling my husband about it. then my brother mentioned it just today. Weird!

        • Sue Langley
          August 12, 2013 at 9:01 am

          Thanks for your comment, Liz! This has turned into such an interesting post, mainly because of all the nostalgic comments and the comments marveling on how similar these flies are to honey bees. Looks like children are the same everywhere in Southern California….we made our own fun. Isn’t Google amazing, too! I lived in Fullerton for 35 years and loved it!

      • Greg Messemer
        February 25, 2015 at 10:45 am

        We caught H bees all the time in Orange California in the 70s and I too tried to google them once with no luck.

        I don’t ever see them any more. I guess I will also forget my dreams of ever running an “H” bee honey farm 🙁

    6. Julie Brown
      August 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      So Sue, if the H is on their back and they won’t sting you? I want to make sure before I try to hold one or tell the neighbor kids. I don’t want them to get stung (or me). Yellow Jackets Wasps will definately sting you.

      • August 3, 2011 at 3:53 pm

        Yes, they have to look just like the “H” in the photo. I think telling kids this is probably against the law now though. It was the 60s when we kids did all this ‘dangerous stuff’ 🙂

    7. November 13, 2011 at 10:12 am

      Thank you for this post! When I was in elementary school in Downey, CA, back in the late fifties we used to catch these “H” bees too. Some kids would tie a thread around them like a leash and lead them around like a pet. Only problem was in getting the leash off without damaging the insect. We never figured out how to do that. Hurrah for the internet—without it, these questions would be keeping all of us up at night!

      • November 15, 2011 at 9:23 am

        I’m glad TTPT, that someone else remembers this! Was a a California thing, I wonder?

        • Professor Lion
          December 2, 2013 at 7:27 pm

          My friends and I used to capture these “Bees”, and tie a string on one of their legs to make a “Bee String”. This was WAY back in the early Sixties, when I was in elementary school in Whittier, CA. I knew of two kinds of “Bees” back then; “H” Bees, and “Stinger” Bees. I’ve ALWAYS wondered what these “Imitation Bees” Really were!

          • Sue Langley
            December 29, 2013 at 6:14 am

            How fascinating to get so many common experiences and many fro Orange County area. I also remember the boys especially doing this with flies and bees, when they got bored in class… Sue

    8. Pam
      December 3, 2011 at 11:41 am

      I grew up in Anaheim, CA, and we often caught these “H bees” as children, forty years ago. We don’t see them anymore- but apparently they are still around? We’ve been wondering about “H Bees” for years, so thank you so much for finally resolving this mystery!

      • December 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm

        Thanks, Pam, for your comment! I wonder if it was an Orange County bee/ The only ones who’ve heard of this are folks from Southern California. ‘Course we do have them here, so maybe they stay on the West Coast. I’m glad to hear that you grew up knowing of them and playing with them.

    9. February 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm

      Finally some confirmation about the “bee” that did not sting. I would tell people about this bee I caught when I was a youngster in Lakewood that did not sting! They did not believe. Unfortunately and sadly I do not see them around Lakewood/Long beach anymore.

      • February 27, 2012 at 12:58 pm

        Thanks, for your comment, David. Some may be up here in Central California. If you plant a few CA native plants the birds and insects do come back, I’ve heard. There may be too few in the LA/OC area

    10. Gordon Owens
      March 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm

      Interesting photos. I was telling a co-worker about these and decided to Google them. When I was a kid in central California, (Fresno) my older brother used to catch them for me and tie a piece of thread on of their legs and I would walk around the neighborhood with them like baloons on a string. We used to give them sugar water to drink and after a while would cut the thread and let them go. I now live in Hawaii and they have no such critters here that I am aware of. Brings back memories.

      • March 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

        Gordon, thanks! I’m glad to have sparked a memory! I never thought I’d be living this close to Fresno, but I like it fine! I like staying up in the cooler mountains, though.

    11. lisa
      April 5, 2012 at 5:39 am

      Last sunday I was at riverside nursery in fresno , I looked over at a flower and saw the infamous “H” bee which took me back to my childhood as well .

      In my fifty’s now I was a little apprehensive about catching it lol.

      Thank you for the wonderful information and photos.

      • April 5, 2012 at 8:00 am

        You’re very welcome! I’m glad someone else remembers ‘H’ bees! Sue

    12. April 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm

      I’m from Michigan and lost my insect field guide and was completely frustrated trying to identify this “bee” until I came across your post. Thanks!

      • April 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

        You’re welcome! Is amazing what you can find when you search the net now.. 🙂

    13. Mark
      September 27, 2012 at 1:20 pm

      I too grew up in Downey, CA in the 50s and 60s and was always catching H bees. I didn’t tell anyone that H bees didn’t sting and everyone thought I was crazy for catching the bees and wondered why I never got stung. I haven’t seen H bees or big grasshoppers around here in years. Also, it seems that June bugs are not as abundant as they used to be. I can remember dozens of them buzzing around the porch light then. I feel lucky if I even see a handful anymore.

      • Sue Langley
        September 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

        Thanks, Mark, for your comment. What was it about the Southland that “H” bees were so prevalent. I shouldn’t wonder because we also found horned or “horny” toads in our sandy backyard.
        Another odd insect was the ‘Ant lion” which would lie at the bottom of a small sandy cone and trap ants who wouldn’t be able to climb up the smooth steep sides. I remember those big armored grasshoppers. We’d follow them around the yard from jump to jump. Simple pleasures.

        As concrete has taken over the wild side of Orange County, the children don’t experience all that we did.

        • Jeanne Smith
          February 12, 2016 at 10:27 am

          I came across your post today. I was looking at some pix I’d taken of bees on my Hyacinth and started thinking about the H bees we played with as children (Los Alamitos, Santa Ana, and Cypress) in the 50’s and 60’s. I always thought of them as bees and was surprised to find a post calling them hover bees or hover flies. We had hover flies, too, in our parks, but they had a greenish tint to them and hovered over the sand where we all played. We knew they weren’t dangerous so we weren’t bothered by them. Thanks for clearing up the questions…I, too, wondered if they were still around. I live in Oregon now, and have never seen any up here, tho we do have a fuzzy mimic bee, Bombylius, I believe it is. Thanks for the memories!

    14. Mark
      September 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Hi Sue,
      Thanks for the reply. Your right, most all the vacant land is filled up now and I think most of these species went by the wayside. Don’t know what made me think of H bees today, but there wasn’t much on the web except your site. Maybe they were mostly present in So Cal but I definitely have not seen one in many years. I miss all the June bugs too :-). Thanks again for your reply….

    15. Howard English
      April 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      I live in Salem, Oregon in a Mobile home park. The manager of the park is very knowlegable about bees. But, he had never heard of a H bee. He Googled it and we found out it was not a bee at all. I grew up in Parlier, Calif.(just south of Fresno) in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Catching H bees was one of our favorite past times

      • Sue Langley
        August 12, 2013 at 10:15 am

        It seems our experience as children in California was common,….I’m so glad to hear from so many who had the same remembrance!

    16. Michelle
      May 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm

      This site made me both happy,nostalgic,and a little sad. Like many of you , as I was sitting in my garden, I wondered about the H bee I remembered as a child. I mentioned it to my husband who laughed and told me it was not a bee. I googled it and found he was correct. I was disappointed but not daunted. I showed him the posts of others , who like me had fond childhood memories of H bee’s and Horny
      Toads. I was saddened by the comments concerning so few sightings today and I have to wonder, what creatures will our kids have fond memories of that might not be around for thier kids. Thank all of you for the trip down memory lane, and for showing my husband I wasn’t alone in this fond Memory.

    17. Michelle
      May 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm

      I forgot to mention ,my H Bee , Horny Toad summer days were in Norwalk, California in the late 60’s early 70’s. The wax Leaf Privit was the shrub they were drawn to. It had small white flowers , that had a strong honeysuckle smell. The Wax Leaf is a favorite of many Garden supply stores and the smell always evokes the memories of childhood.

      • Sue Langley
        August 12, 2013 at 10:14 am

        Thanks, Michelle, for your comment. Our neighbors growing up had a hedge of wax-leaf privit and that’s where we’d find the H bees. I hadn’t remembered that until you mentioned it.

    18. Ilona
      August 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      I grew up in Lakewood, California and like so many others In So Cal, we, too, caught the “H” Bee’s. I’ve always wondered what had happened to them, as I still live in SoCal. As children we not only caught them, but we pulled their wings off so that they couldn’t fly away and they’d be our “forever” pets! How horrible that was of us!! I am so ashamed of having done that as a child and have asked for forgiveness many a times. Children do some of the most unthinkable things, really not meaning any harm! I now at the age of 66 have often wondered if they still exist? You say that they’re a fly and not a bee…..hum….and here we kids always thought that the “H” stood for “Honeybee”! Silly kids!

      • Sue Langley
        September 6, 2013 at 5:37 pm

        Yes, as children, we sometimes did horrible things, like aiming a magnifying glass at ants. I think the awful feelings that gave us as children, probably served us in our later years in wisdom. That’s the first I heard about H standing for Honeybee. Laughing…Yes, I’ll be 60 myself this year and have fond memories of growing up where the orange groves grew. H bees, who’d a thunk this would be such an interesting post? Thanks for your thoughts and your ‘confession.’ 🙂 Sue

    19. Susan
      December 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      Great memory of growing up in La Mirada too! I have mentioned catching H bees as a kid several times and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. Glad to see so many others with that memory also. Thanks for the info!

      • Sue Langley
        December 29, 2013 at 6:08 am

        Susan, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! As you see, many of the others who commented are from Orange County! Pretty cool how the internet brings people together, even over something simple and nostalgic like this. I hope you found what you were looking for… Sue

    20. cheryl
      February 18, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      Another;southern calif native from;the 50’s and 60’s here! I grew up in Santa Ana.
      I just finished taking a beekeeping class here in south carolina and asked about H bees…..and got blank looks from everyone (they did advise me that an H bee is not a honeybee but could not relate to an H bee at all).
      But, yes, I remember catching H bees. My brothers would catch honeybees by the wings, spit into their shirt (that they pulled away from their skin) and dip the honeybees abdomen in the spit causing it to sting (and die). this is how we learned the H bee had no stinger and came to watch for the H so we could safely catch them.

      • Sue Langley
        February 18, 2014 at 6:02 pm

        Ha! Cheryl, I wouldn’t wonder that you got blank stares! I don’t know if H bees are still in Orange County, but it’s been so fun to have a group of us here who remember.

        H bees still live up here where I moved, so at least live on somewhere! We were very cruel as children, but like you say, we learned. My brother used to aim a magnifying glass at ants and cook them,…and I’m sure we tormented some poor horny toads. Hope to God I don’t come back as one…

    21. Linda
      June 1, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      I was just talking to my 4 year old grandson about H Bees and decided to look them up. I also grew up in Orange County (Buena Park). We spent many afternoons huddled around our neighbors bushes catching these bees in our hands and had absolutely NO fear. We always had to look closely to make sure there was an H, and not stripes on their backs. I had no idea these bees were only found in Orange County! They will always be ‘h bees’ to me. ;-).

      • Sue Langley
        June 2, 2014 at 10:02 am

        Hi Linda,
        This is my favorite post now because of all the wonderful comments and sentimental memories I have in common with you all. Amazing! I’m always glad to find a comment about H bees in my email!
        You’re right,..we had NO fear! Somehow, from kid to kid we knew that these ‘bees’ were safe to play with.

        They are also up here around Oakhurst, CA south of Yosemite, because seeing them in my garden here was what spurred me to find out more about them. Alas,…there are no horny toads here, nor have I seen one since my childhood in Orange County.

        Does anyone remember what we called ant lions? We used to play with those ant lion pits, tossing a hapless ant in the small but deep sandy pit to a horrible fate. ~~ Sue

    22. Dan Perrigan
      June 24, 2014 at 1:13 pm

      I just saw your post and had to comment. I grew up in Norwalk, CA in the early 70’s and remember catching H Bees. I had forgotten them until recently. I live in New Jersey now and have a lot of clover in my backyard — and therefore many honeybees. I caught myself looking at the stripes this morning, looking for an “H”, and decided I needed to see if there actually was such a thing as the H Bee I remembered as a child. I’m glad there is.

      • Sue Langley
        June 24, 2014 at 4:06 pm

        I’m glad to hear from another former Southern Californian. That location seems to be what we all have in common. I’m mid state and in the mountains, so this is the farthest north I’ve heard of them occurring.

    23. Jim Wittenberg
      June 29, 2014 at 9:48 am

      H – bees weren’t just a Southern California creature. We had them here in Sacramento when I was a 60s kid. Called them the same thing, too. Fun times. I wonder if my grandchildren know about them?

      • Sue Langley
        June 29, 2014 at 12:14 pm

        Thanks, Jim,…good to know that their territory is even north of me in Oakhurst area. So interesting that you’ll called them the same name.
        You know, we spent a lot of time outside playing when we were kids, so maybe you can someday show your grandkids the H-bees,…something a parent may be hesitant to do. When kids, we were pretty fearless and trusted our friends when they said that H-bees didn’t sting. This can only add to your mystique as a Grandpa…

        • Jim Wittenberg
          June 30, 2014 at 7:20 pm

          I was surprised and delighted to see this discussion of H-bees online. I had always thought it was a local name madeup by the neighborhood kids. And yes, I will share with my grandchildren.

    24. Mike Housky
      July 9, 2014 at 10:21 am

      I remember them being common in Orange County, CA, in the ’50s and ’60s. My very first bee sting, in fact, was when a neighbor kid told me, “That’s an H bee!” It wasn’t

      I soon learned the difference, though, and caught (and mostly released) many of them

      When my family later moved to Texas for a couple of years, kids thought I was making up stories about a bee that didn’t sting. There were no H bees in the Dallas area in 1960, as far as I could tell. Some friends from back East call them “drones”, but drone bees are different. All this is consistent with the California thing.

      They don’t seem to be as common in South County these days as they did in Stanton and Garden Grove back then, though I did see some in Lake Forest area several years ago.

      I think.

      I still remembered the bee sting, and didn’t try to catch one. :^)

    25. July 18, 2014 at 1:12 pm

      I was so excited to see this post and all the wonderful comments about H-bees since I had begun to think I was crazy. I recently tried to tell my co-workers here in North Carolina about these very special bees and they didn’t believe me. I grew up in the Sunnyvale/San Jose area of California in the late 50s and we saw these bees all summer long. It was great fun to show a newcomer to the neighborhood how I could catch bees with my bare hands and not get stung! haha! Thank you for the great explanation and for stirring fond memories of days gone by. Blessings!

    26. Debbie Brown
      July 27, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      I can’t tell you happy I was to find this page! I grew up in both southern and northern California. We lived in Santa Ana in Orange County, and in Sunnyvale in Northern California, and I remember catching H-bees with my older brothers while we were growing up in the ’70s. They especially loved the apricot tree that grew in our front yard in Sunnyvale. I’ve told many people about them over the years and no one has every heard of them, in fact, they look at me like I’m crazy – but then I live on the East Coast now so I have never seen them here. What great memories you have brought back, and confirmed that my memory is correct 🙂 Funny that they aren’t really bees! They sure do look like them! Lucky for us they weren’t – we sure did catch a lot of them while growing up, and boy was it fun! Thanks again!!

      • Dyanne
        October 29, 2014 at 4:54 pm

        I wonder if there have ever been any sightings outside of California? I always look where bees are gathered but haven’t seen any in NC yet.

    27. Sue Langley
      July 27, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      Hi Debbie,…I’m so glad to hear your story….what a hoot! It’s amazing what we did as kids, playing with bees and flies and ants. I guess it made us feel powerful to know this bee,…this special one, was our secret. The info was passed from kid to kid. Did our parents know? 🙂

    28. Kelly
      August 2, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      I also used to catch h bees and often wonder why I haven’t seen them for decades. I went to school in Downey in the late 50’s and we would catch them by their wings and chase the girls to scare them. There weren’t enough of them so I would catch a regular bee and let it sting me in the hand. Then chase the girls with it. Soon I developed an allergy to bee stings and had to get a shot once a week for about a year. I sill live in So Cal and I’ll always remember h bees but may never see one again.

    29. Sue Langley
      August 3, 2014 at 10:04 am

      Kelly, maybe there’s too much ‘civilization’ in Orange County now and they flew up here to the foothills. 🙂 I see them now and then in the garden when I look.

      Aren’t you surprised that our parents allowed us to do so much on our own as kids? Doesn’t happen today…parents would shudder at a child allowing a bee to sting her on purpose. lol! And you survived anyway,…even now with an allergy. Self inflicted??

      Good to hear from another person who experienced what we did.

    30. Karen
      August 14, 2014 at 6:55 am

      What a great post. I grew up in Tulare County and used to catch these “bees” all the time. I no longer live there and wondered if they still were around. Most of the people I’ve told here in the Midwest have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention H-Bees. Glad to know what they really are, and that they are still around. Thanks for the info.

      • Sue Langley
        September 3, 2014 at 12:52 pm

        Thanks, Karen for letting us know that the H bees are in Tulare County. I wonder if they ever occur outside of California?

    31. October 27, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      I also have memories of the H bee’s. I haven’t seen one for years, they just seemed to have vanished. Worst part is I don’t know when, they are just gone, like SO many bee’s in so. Cal. I’m in Lakewood, Ca. And last week I was in my back yard on a nice day and noticed, I should say, I didn’t notice any bee’s. How very sad for all of us. I miss seeing H bee’s.

      • Sue Langley
        October 27, 2014 at 1:33 pm

        Thanks for letting me know your fond memories, Bruce. You say you haven’t any H-bees, nor any bees at all, but do you have any native plants in your garden? If you plant even Black eyed Susans,…you may eventually get both. They also like lavender, rosemary and many Mediterranean plants as well as California natives. Plant them and they will come, I’ve read. In my garden, it’s true!

    32. Brent Enterline
      January 24, 2015 at 6:35 pm

      I remember H bees in the early 60’s in San Joaquin Valley town of Shafter, CA. We would go out as kids and capture them an jar them up. We would get a penny apiece for them when we turned them into a research center of some kind back then…Thank you for posting this. It verified my memories of it!!

    33. Jim Wittenberg
      January 24, 2015 at 9:38 pm

      A penny a piece? You were an enterprising child. A nice memory.

      My dad grew up on a farm in Shafter, CA. My cousin’s family still lives there.

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