There are about 19 different species of bumblebee (and six species of cuckoo bumblebees) found in the UK, 68 in Europe, 124 species in China, 24 in South America, and around 300 in the world. On these and the linked pages I will show you how to recognise the six common species (below), and there is a page of less common species, and North American bumblebees, but really the best way to identify all bumblebees confidently down to species level is to use the keys and photographs in books, and to look at the bumblebee through a hand lens. However for the average person the drawings, descriptions and photographs on this web site should be enough. You can also try the Quick ID Guide, and a whole pile of other pages on bumblebees and similar insects at the bottom of this page..
The bumblebee body can be divided into three main parts to make
identification easy. These are:
The head, which can be quite difficult to see on a foraging bee as it is deep in the flower.
The thorax which has the wings and legs attached. It is really just a box of muscles. The biggest being the flight muscles.
The abdomen which has the honey stomach for storing nectar, the sting, the wax glands and all the digestive and reproductive organs.
The lengths quoted here are in millimetres and are taken when the tongue is folded under the body. Males have slightly longer antennae, bigger eyes, no sting and no pollen basket. Workers are usually smaller than the queen.
This is our largest bumblebee, and usually the first to emerge. The thing to note on the queen is the dirty orange colour of the hairs at the end of the queen's abdomen - see below.
Also when Bombus terrestris and B. lucorum (below) can be seen together the yellow hairs of B. terrestris appear more orangey while those of B. lucorum are more lemon yellow. Workers have a white tail, and are almost indistinguishable from Bombus lucorum workers. Lengths, queen 20-22, worker 11-17 (below)
male 14-16. Males look pretty much the same as workers. More on Bombus terrestris
Slightly smaller than Bombus terrestris (above), and with a white tip to the abdomen of queens (below) and workers.
Lengths, queen 19-20, worker 11-17 (below)
male 14-16 (below).
Populations are believed to be declining. More on Bombus lucorum
Probably the most easy to recognise of all our bumblebees with its black body and bright orange tail. Although the queen's body (below) is as long as that of B. terrestris it is not as heavily built.
Lengths, queen 20-22, workers 11-16 - look the same as the queen, but are much smaller.
Male (above) 14-16. The photograph of the male above shows the typical "moustache", this is one of the easiest ways to recognise a male bumblebee. Is extending its range northwards. More on Bombus lapidarius
This bee has the most colour variation of the six common species. The yellow bar on the thorax is usually there, but may be reduced to just a few hairs. The yellow bar in the middle of the abdomen often has a break in the middle, and sometimes it is just a few yellow hairs, and occasionally totally absent. The pink/orange/brown tail hairs are usually present, but the colour varies. Workers have a white tail. Lengths, queen (below) 15-17, workers 10-14. Workers look the same as the queen.
Male (below) 11-13. More on Bombus pratorum
Note the two yellow bands on the thorax, this is how to tell this bee apart from B. lucorum/terrestris. This bee also has a long head, long legs and a slimmer body than B. terrestris/lucorum. Queens and workers look similar (below). While flying between flowers that are close together, e.g. foxgloves the bee often keeps its long tongue extended. Lengths, queen 17-20, workers 11-16
Male 14-15 (below) . More on Bombus hortorum
This queen has her tongue sheath extended, her tongue is inside and is longer than the sheath. Although there are a few species of ginger coloured bumblebees in the UK this is by far the most common in nearly all areas. The hairs of the abdomen are lighter in colour to those of the thorax, and have a few black hairs. Queens, workers and males all look alike (below). In a very sunny summer such as 1995 the hairs of older bees can become faded and appear beige in colour. The thorax is always covered in hairs, unlike other species which sometimes have a bald patch in the centre of the thorax. This can be caused by wear as the bees rub against the side and roof of the nest, but this is hardly ever seen in Bombus pascuorum. If there is a complete absence of black hairs on the abdomen, then the bumblebee is probably not B. pascuorum, but either B. humilis or B. muscorum. Lengths, queen 16-18, workers 10-15, male 13-14. More on Bombus pascuorum
*Images taken from the excellent book Bumblebees, published by Pelagic Publishing.
Related pages - Less common species - Quick ID guide - Cuckoo bumblebees - North American species - Bombus impatiens - N. American cuckoos - Is it a bumblebee? - Other bees1, 2 - Looks like a bumblebee - Bumblebee predators
On a lighter note you could try this interesting bumblebee android game app on your android device ( play store, direct download link)