A Guide to Identifying Bees Using the Discoverlife Bee Keys

Sam Droege

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Native Bee Monitoring Laboratory
Laurel, Maryland
Discover Life Bee Page
Discover Life Bee Genera Guide

Discover Life | All Living Things | Identification Guides | A Guide to Identifying Bees Using the Discoverlife Bee Keys


This document provides guidance in the use of the online Discoverlife guides or keys. These instructions are designed for use with the guides for the genera and species of bees, however, these instructions will largely hold true for any of the non-bee guides also available at the site. All of the Nature Guides are located at:


However, the consolidated links to the bee guides and associated materials are at:


Discoverlife guides differ from traditional dichotomous keys in that characters that help differentiate species are evaluated and scored for all or almost all of the species. Think of it as a matrix, with species as rows and character states as columns. That matrix is employed by answering questions regarding the presence or absence of characters for a specimen. As questions are answered the list of possible species is narrowed until, in most cases, the list resolves to a single name.

On the bee page at Discoverlife there are a series of guides listed for Eastern North American bees (states and provinces east of the Mississippi River). Over the coming years we will expand these guides to include the western states and provinces. Guides are listed as either implemented or draft. Implemented guides have at least the wording completed and have gone through several rounds of editing, checking, and testing. These guides will continue to evolve as new information comes in on species, names, characters, and the addition of pictures and drawings. Draft guides are potentially useful, but should be used with great caution as they are still being developed, edited, and validated.

Most guides deal with a single genus of bees, if there are a large number of species present these guides are often divided into two guides, one for each sex, as characters useful for identifying species are often gender specific.

The instructions that follow apply equally to the guide to bee genera or to any of the individual bee genera guides.

Each guide has questions on the right, a species list on the left, and navigation tools across the top. The list of species and the list of questions interact with each other. Answering any question (in any order) narrows the list of candidate species. Similarly, one can flip the process and have the computer narrow the set of questions based on the species that remain on the list.

Clicking on any pictures present within the guide will display an enlarged or version of the picture. Many species names can also be clicked on to reveal species specific pictures and often have associated text material on the nature history or identification of that species.

The initial page presents a subset of all the questions in the guide. These questions are both easiest to understand and most likely to separate out large numbers of species.

There is no need to answer the questions in the order presented.

At least initially, you will find that there are some questions that are clearer in your mind than others. These should be answered first.

Leave questions you are unsure of blank! Don't guess! We recommend that you spend more time reading and learning about the morphological characters in the questions before providing your answer, or simply skipping the question.

Not all characters will have been scored for all species. If both sexes are present in a guide then characters that only apply to one sex will obviously not be scored for the other sex. Similarly, if we have been unable to obtain a specimen of a rare species we may not be able to score some characteristics from the available literature. The consequence of this is that any species that has not been scored for a particular question will remain on the list of possible candidate species regardless of whether it actually has that character or not, simply because it cannot be eliminated from the list of possibilities.

At an point you can press any of the SEARCH buttons that are located throughout the page. Doing so will update the species list on the left based on the charaters you have chosen.

At any point you can also click on the SIMPLIFY button that appears in the left hand column above the species list. Doing so eliminates both questions and states within questions that do not help resolve the identity of the species remaining on the list. Clicking this button also adds those appropriate questions that were not included in the initial list of questions present when the guide was first opened. Additionally, hitting the SIMPLIFY key will also reorder the questions alphabetically.

Both the SEARCH and SIMPLIFY buttons can be clicked as often as you wish. We usually click on the SEARCH button after answering a question, just to get a sense of the questions that best help eliminate species the quickest and to make sure that we haven't made some fatal error. We suggest waiting to click on the SIMPLIFY button until you have a reasonably small list of species left or have answered most of the questions you are comfortable with on the first page. If you hit the SIMPLIFY button earlier in the process it will bring up a potentially very large list of additional questions, that may not be as useful or as easy to use as the initial ones.



Especially when you are unfamiliar with the species within a genus it is very useful to take some extra time to double check your initial identification. In many cases there will be pictures and extra information stored as a link to the species name. Those can be compared to your specimen (be aware that males and females often look quite different from one another).

The next step to verifying your species ID is to compare your specimen to the complete list of the scored characteristics of that species. To get a list of those characteristics click on the MENU link at the very top of the page, then at the top of the left hand column click on the CHARACTERS option and then the species you wish to review, then hit the SUBMIT button to get a list of scored characteristics.

One nice feature of the Discoverlife guides is that there are many paths to the final answer of correct species identification. This feature can be exploited when checking your identifications. By hitting the SIMPLIFY key at the very beginning you will display ALL the questions for the guides. By answering a different set of initial questions a different species will remain on the list. These new questions and species may expose some flaw in your initial identification and this will become obvious if your don't return to the same species identification at the end.

The RESTART link, located at the top of the page in the header, restarts the guide at the beginning.


Advanced Uses of These Guides

By pressing the MENU link at the top of the page the simple species list found normally in the left hand column is replaced with a set of new options used by individuals building or editing guides. Some of these features are also useful when exploring the identity of a species. Don't worry about exploring any of the features found in the MENU page as only the guide developers have permission to make permanent changes.

The CHARACTERS option will give you the scored characters for any of the species you have checked.

The DIFFERENCES option will give you the differences in scoring among any 2 or more species you click.

Clicking the HAS key restarts the guide but brings up ALL the characters for that guide in alphabetical order. Additionally, a new set of 2-3 buttons has been added at the top of each characters section; the NOT, ONLY, and HAS buttons (sometimes the NOT button may be turned off). If you don't click any of these 3 buttons the guide acts as it normally does. If, however, you click on the HAS button along with one of the character states?. hitting the IDENTIFY button will generate a list of species on the left that will include only those species that have been scored as having that character. What will be missing are those species that were never scored for that character at all. Similarly the ONLY button provides a list of species that have been scored for that character alone. This means that if a species was scored as possibly having all or more than one of the possible states, it will not be displayed if the ONLY button was clicked. The NOT button provides a list of species have not been scored the selected character state(s).

The Discoverlife website also has a HELP link, which takes you to even more details on some of the more advanced features.

If you have questions about any of the bee guides please contact Sam Droege at sdroege@usgs.gov or 301.497.5840. My lab is open to anyone who would like to come learn to process and identify their collection of bees. Most of the time we have space, computers, and microscopes available as well as access to our synoptic collection.



Many thanks to Liz Sellers for the many helpful edits.

Discover Life | All Living Things | Identification Guides | A Guide to Identifying Bees Using the Discoverlife Bee Keys