The honey bee and sweat bee are common insects that make excellent pollinators. Honey bees produce honey and contribute to pollinating crops around the world. Sweat bees, or halictids, aren’t resource providers, but they pollinate flowers with impressive efficiency.
These two bee species sometimes get mixed up but differ in nesting habits, appearance, and much more. This guide takes a deep dive into how they compare.
What is the difference between a sweat bee and a honey bee?
Sweat bees are smaller insects that range from dark to vibrant metallic shades. They are docile creatures that make wonderful pollinators. Typically living in burrowed tunnels, they may live alone or in a colony.
Honey bees have bigger bodies, live in larger colonies above ground in hives, produce resources like honey, and will defend their home more aggressively.
Honey bees have fat bodies with a set of yellow and brown stripes. Depending on the breed, they vary in color and often have a coat of fuzz. They have pockets on their legs for collecting pollen.
The honey bee measures a little over half an inch in length, longer than a sweat bee which may only reach a quarter inch.
Sweat bees vary in size by species but are typically smaller than honey bees. They often have a dark metallic appearance, but less common varieties may have green, red, or blue shades. Unlike the Apis mellifera, male sweat bees are usually slimmer than females and often have yellow faces.
The sweat bee’s tongue is shorter than a honey bee’s. They use it to lap up human sweat, a valuable supplement to nectar and pollen.
There are around 1000 sweat bee species worldwide, mostly preferring warmer climates. The more common types include the following:
- Dialictus Zephrum: also known as the common eastern sweat bee, the females have a vibrant brassy-green upper body that is easy to spot. The belly of the male dialictus zephrum is brighter than the female’s.
- Agapostemon Angelicus: also known as the Angeles striped sweat bee, their bright metallic green body is hard to miss.
- Nomia Melanderi: also known as the alkali bee, this species are long, slender, and looks much like a yellow jacket with fur.
Honey bees are generally non-aggressive insects if left alone. Some races are more docile than others. Pure Buckfasts and Caucasians are known for their calm nature, while Carniolans are likelier to sting. Africanized bees won’t hesitate to attack if threatened.
The female has a stinger that she may use if needed. It is barbed, which means the bee will usually die after attacking.
Sweat bees are calm insects that rarely sting, preferring to go about their business. Only females have stingers; most people find the poison less potent than that of a honey bee.
Did you know? According to the Schmidt sting pain index, the pain resulting from a honey bee is roughly twice as severe as a sweat bee. Read more here>
A honey bee colony can grow its numbers to 60,000 bees or more in the right conditions. They prepare for winter by storing honey and pollen; they survive cold winters by huddling together in a cluster within the warmth of the hive.
The honey bee colony has a queen bee, which may lay thousands of eggs daily. Female nurse bees assist the queen with rearing babies until they are self-sufficient.
Sweat bees vary depending on their species:
- Some may live a solitary life, like the Agapostemon angelicus. The females mate and then return to their nest alone.
- Eusocial bees such as the Dialictus zephrum are closer to honey bees. Their colony structure includes a queen, drones, and workers.
- Semi-social sweat bees belong to a colony that may share its space with other colonies. The combined colony can grow large, although smaller than a honey bee hive.
Also read: Honey bee vs. leafcuutter bee.
Honey bee workers build hives with beeswax while the queen oversees the work. A colony may live in the same home for years if foraging remains favorable.
As honey bee hives fill up, they will likely swarm. Led by scouts, roughly half the bees will leave with the queen to start a new home.
Honey bees store honey and pollen in their hive to survive cold winters. Over this time, they remain inactive, huddling together in a pack to keep warm.
Sweat bees live in nests closer to that of a bumble bee. They typically burrow underground by digging branched tunnels into the soil. Some will tunnel through soft wood or find a cavity to live in. This species enjoys warm weather and will choose a sunny area to build a nest.
Like honey bees, the female sweat bee constructs the home.
Sweat bees lay their eggs at the end of the tunnel. When laying, they provide their eggs with all the sustenance needed to grow into an adult. This feature contrasts with honey bees, which feed their young throughout the lifecycle.
While honey bees huddle through cold winters, sweat bees typically overwinter in burrows as larvae or pupae.
Interesting reading: What’s the difference between the honey bee and Asian giant hornet?
Honey bees are revered for their pollinating skills, delicately collecting pollen in baskets on their hind legs. Fruit trees, vegetables, almonds, and many other plants rely on honey bees to reproduce. Their big population and ability to be moved to new areas make them an essential part of our ecosystem.
Sweat bees are also excellent pollinators. Unlike honey bees, which are highly selective about what blooms to visit, they visit almost any flower on offer. Sweat bees are critical in pollinating local native plants, sunflowers, stone fruit crops, alfalfa, and wildflowers.
Sweat bees collect pollen more effectively than honey bees. Like bumble bees, they use buzz pollination (sonication) to dislodge pollen. The female bee uses her mandibles to grab the flower’s anther and then uses powerful wing muscles to vibrate the plant.
Sweat bees also feed on honeydew, a byproduct of aphid colonies.
Honey bees begin life as an egg laid in a brood comb cell. They’re fed and cared for by the queen and nurse bees. Worker honey bees live around six weeks in summer, while winter bees may have a lifespan of six months. Queen bees can live for several years before being replaced by a new queen.
Sweat bees also start as an egg which develops into a larva, then pupates before developing into an adult. This whole process ranges from 17-40 days.
While honey bees have been researched extensively, the precise lifespan of sweat bees is unknown. Scientists estimate that females will nest up to twelve times before they die.
Honey bees can reward beekeepers with honey, beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly – all resources a growing hive may produce in excess. Managing bees will take equipment and commitment to keep them healthy and happy.
Sweat bees are wild insects that don’t build out extensive honeycomb and other resources. They are not used by commercial or hobbyist beekeepers.
Honey bee swarms resting in a cluster are likely to move on within a day. They are taking a breather before setting off for a new home.
If the swarm is in a location where people may get too close, call a beekeeper to take them away. Local beekeepers can also remove honey bees that start building a nest on your property.
Sweat bees aren’t aggressive but may become a nuisance in large numbers. They may sting when swatted away. If they’ve moved into a wall cavity, call a beekeeper to remove them humanely. Pest exterminators will usually kill them, so try to avoid their services.
Worth a read: How do honey and carpenter bees differ?
Sweat bees and honey bees have some practical benefits.
- Produce honey, wax, and other resources for beekeepers.
- Transport bees to different locations for crop pollination.
- Work as a colony to fight off threats like yellow jackets.
- Friendly insects that are great for getting near without getting stung.
- Extremely effective at pollinating a wide range of different plants.
Summary comparison of honey bees and sweat bees
|Honey Bee||Sweat Bee|
|Scientific Name||Apis mellifera||Halictid|
|Color||Yellow and brown bands.||Varies from yellow and brown bands to metallic bright colors.|
|Adult Length||Just over a half inch||Many grow to ¼” while some species reach ¾”.|
|Personality||Ranges from docile to highly aggressive.||Non aggressive unless provoked|
|Sting||Painful and venomous sting, bee dies after attacking.||Less painful stinger, bee lives after stinging.|
|Colony||Up to 60,000 in one hive.||Range from solitary, communal, semi-social or eusocial.|
|Nest||Large, beeswax hives.||Branched, burrowed tunnels in soil or soft wood.|
|Pollination||Pollen gets stored in baskets.||Buzz pollination.|
|Produce||Honey, wax, propolis, royal jelly.||Don’t produce resources.|
Sweat and honey bees are both beneficial insects for our ecosystem. They play a significant role in pollinating crops and are mostly non-aggressive unless provoked.
Honey bees have much greater numbers and live in many more locations across the planet. That means they play a bigger part in pollination. However, sweat bees are highly efficient pollinators for keeping in the garden. They visit a broader range of flowers than honey bees.
If you enjoy reading comparison guides, check out our comparison of the mason bee and honey bee.