There are 24 species of bumblebees in the UK, and it can be hard to tell one from the other. Until you know which tell-tale signs to look for. Most species have different colors, and the queens can look quite different to workers and males.
According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, 95-99% of the bees you see will belong to just 7 or 8 bumblebee species. The rest of the bumblebees belong mainly to two groups. Parasitic bumblebees account for the 6 cuckoo bumblebee species, and the remaining 11 species are highly localized, and habitat driven.
The names of the 8 most common species that account for the highest sightings are shown below. The best tell-tale body parts for identifying them are the face, tail, legs, and stripes, but these can be hidden from view if the bumblebee curls up. Of these, the tail color is often the easiest to see.
Male bumblebees usually emerge in late summer. They seem lazier than female worker bees, taking time to sit on flowers but not gathering pollen. They can be identified by their shaggy, hairy look, and they have lots of facial hair. They hover around flowers not to eat, but to find a mate.
White tails range in color from white to yellow, red tails are red, and uniform tails are usually ginger in color but the same color as the abdomen.
The 8 most common species: Common carder, Tree, Early, Garden, Red-Tailed, White-Tailed, Heath and Buff-Tailed.
This 5:03-minute video by Bumblebee Trust shows us how to identify the Big 8:
White-tailed bumblebees (bombus lucorum) are widespread in the UK and forage from early spring to early autumn. Worker Buff-tailed bumblebees have white tails and are black and yellow banded, with two yellow bands. Except the queen, who has an orange buff tail. In contrast, the Garden bumblebee has three yellow bands and a white tail.
The Red-tailed bumblebees (bombus lapidarius) have a tail that can look orange, but it is red. These bees have a taste for thistle, bird’s foot trefoil and budleia flowers.
Uniform-tailed bumblebees are the least flamboyant, their tail color is the same as the rest of their bodies.
The Early bumblebee (bombus pratorum) refers to small queens that emerge earlier than most, between March and May, and forage on soft fruits like blackberries and raspberries. They are important pollinators but live in small underground colonies of up to 100 workers. The worker Early bumblebees frequently lose the yellow abdominal band of the queen and look much darker than she does.
Small and large Garden bumblebees (bombus hortorum) nest in colonies of around 100 bees. They have long tongues so they can access honeysuckle and foxglove and other such flowers.
And then there is the common carder bumblebee (bombus pascuorum). These are widespread and can be seen all over the UK through late November. This social group of bees can have up to 200 worker bees at the nest.
The bumblebee is beloved by many people around the world. It is a unique bee with buzz pollination capabilities, helicopter-hovering flight style, loud buzzing, and overall inclination to be bombastically different.
We will look more closely at some of these different types of bumblebees in upcoming blog posts.