The honey bee and leafcutter bee are common insects that make excellent pollinators. Honey bees yield honey, wax, and propolis and pollinate crops worldwide. Leafcutter bees don’t provide resources but pollinate flowers 20 times more efficiently than honey bees1.
At a glance, it’s easy to get the two mixed up in the garden. But they differ in nesting habits, appearance, aggression, and more. This guide takes a deep dive into how they compare.
What is the difference between a leafcutter bee and a honey bee?
Leafcutter bees have black bodies with white stripes on their abdomen. They are similar in size to honey bees but have larger heads and mandibles for chewing plant material. Leafcutters are more docile creatures that live as solitary tunnel nesters.
Honey bees are eusocial insects, living in larger colonies above ground in hives. They produce resources like honey and will defend their home more aggressively. The Western honey bee is typically brown with dull yellow bands.
Honey bees have fat brown bodies with a set of yellow stripes. Depending on the breed, they vary in color and often have a coat of fuzz.
They have corbiculae, or pollen baskets, on their legs to collect pollen. Like a leafcutter bee, the honey bee measures a little over half an inch in length.
Leafcutter bees are dark brown or black with whitish bands. The male’s abdomen is rounder, while the female’s is triangular.
A close look at this genus reveals a bigger head than the honey bee. They have well-developed muscles in their heads, essential for chewing leaves.
Honey bees are typically non-aggressive insects if left alone. Some breeds are more docile than others. Pure Caucasians and Buckfasts are often calm, while Carniolans are likelier to sting. Africanized bees are highly aggressive and are known to continue chasing their victims well away from the hive.
The worker honey bee has a barbed stinger, so she usually dies after attacking.
Leafcutters are calm, docile insects that only sting as a last resort. Their sting is barbless and contains much less venom than a honey bee. Getting stung by a leafcutter bee is less painful than a honey bee or yellowjacket wasp.
A honey bee colony can expand to 60,000 bees or more in the right weather and foraging conditions. The bees prepare for winter by storing honey and pollen; with sufficient numbers, the hive can survive cold winters huddled together in a cluster within the warmth of the hive.
Honey bees are eusocial. The colony has a queen bee, which may lay thousands of eggs daily. Female nurse bees assist in rearing babies until they are self-sufficient.
Leafcutter bees are solitary creatures, choosing to live on their own.
Female honey bees construct hives using beeswax while the queen oversees the work. A colony may remain in the same home for years if conditions remain favorable.
Half the colony will swarm to a new location if a honey bee nest becomes too full. Led by scouts, a mix of drones and worker bees leave with the queen to find a more spacious spot for a hive.
Honey bees store honey and pollen to make it through cold winters. They remain inactive, huddled together in a pack to stay warm.
Leafcutter bees build solitary nests from late spring into early summer. They are the “builders of the bee world”, cutting pieces of leaf with their teeth and taking them back to the nest. They are placed overlapping around the internal walls of the cell, then sealed using a substance secreted from the bee’s mouth.
Like honey bees, the female leafcutter bee constructs the home. They look for pre-existing cavities like hollow stems, rotten wood, and old beetle tunnels in the ground. Their nests may comprise over a dozen cells positioned next to each other.
Some species of leafcutter line their egg cells with petals rather than leaves. Silvery leafcutter bees may use the flower petals of bird’s foot trefoil.
Their vast numbers and our ability to transport their hives make them an essential part of our ecosystem.
While leafcutter bees have a smaller population, they are more effective pollinators. Rather than using a pollen sac, females have a pollen brush to collect the yellow powder on the underside of their abdomen. It falls off as they flit from flower to flower, greatly improving plant fertilization.
Leafcutters pollinate a diverse range of plants, including sunflowers, legumes, wildflowers, fruit trees, and vegetables. Alfalfa crops used to feed livestock rely heavily on the alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata) for pollination.
Honey and leafcutter bees progress through the same stages: from egg to larva, pupa, and finally adult. You can learn about the lifecycle of honey bees here.
Honey bees start life as an egg laid in a brood comb cell. They are fed and cared for by the queen and nurse bees. Worker honey bees have a lifespan of around six weeks in summer, while winter bees may live for up to six months. Queen bees can live for several years before being replaced by a new queen.
Female leafcutter bees typically lay 30-40 eggs in their two-month lifespan. Individual females do all the work locating nesting sites, building nests, and provisioning eggs with food. Inside the nest, the larva will grow over winter and pupate in early spring. A few weeks later, the adult males emerge first, then the females emerge a few days later.
Male leafcutter and honey bees have little purpose after mating. They will die immediately or soon after the reproduction process.
Honey bees reward beekeepers with excess honey, propolis, beeswax, and royal jelly. Managing bees takes equipment and experience to keep them healthy and happy.
Leafcutter bees are wild insects that aren’t kept in manufactured hives. They store just enough food to survive and don’t store honey, wax, or other resources.
Honey bee swarms resting in a cluster usually move to a more permanent location within a day. Call a beekeeper to take them away if they’re located where people may get too close. Local beekeepers can also remove bees that have started building a nest.
Leafcutter bees aren’t aggressive and don’t build large nests, so they’re best left alone. Although they bite into leaves, they only take small amounts of leaf material for their nest. They are unlikely to hurt the plant, so insecticides aren’t needed. They don’t feed on the leaf, so the insecticide wouldn’t work anyway.
Tip: To protect a plant from leafcutter bees, cover it with netting until the nest-building season is complete.
Worth a read: How do honey and carpenter bees differ?
Strengths of honey bees and leafcutter bees
Leafcutter bees and honey bees have some practical benefits.
- Produce honey, wax, and other resources for beekeepers.
- Work as a colony to fight off threats like yellow jackets.
- Transport bees to different locations for crop pollination.
- Extremely effective at pollinating a wide range of different plants.
Summary comparison of honey bees and leafcutter bees
|Yellow and brown bands
|Mostly black with white bands
|Just over a half inch
|Just over a half inch
|Ranges from docile to highly aggressive
|Painful and venomous sting, bee dies after attacking
|Less painful stinger, bee lives after stinging
|Up to 60,000 in one hive
|Large, beeswax hives
|Tunnels with cells that have walls covered in plant material
|Pollen gets stored in baskets on hind legs.
|Pollen gets stored in pollen brush under abdomen
|Honey, wax, propolis, royal jelly
|Don’t produce resources
Leafcutter and honey bees are both beneficial insects for our ecosystem. They pollinate crops and are are mostly non-aggressive unless provoked.
Honey bees have greater numbers and live in many more locations across the planet. That means they play a bigger part in pollination. However, leafcutter bees are highly efficient pollinators for keeping in the garden. They visit a broad mix of flowers and are more effective at transferring pollen.
If you enjoy reading these guides, check out our comparison of the mason and honey bee.