6 bumblebees commonly seen in the UK and how to recognise them

Bumblebee species

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, and there is a page of less common species, and North American bumblebees, but really the best way to recognise all bumblebees is to use the keys and photographs in books.

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.

The 6 common bumblebees

Bombus terrestris

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 abdomen. Also when Bombus terrestris and B. lucorum 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, male 14-16. More on Bombus terrestris

terrestris Queen terrestris Worker
terrestris Male
{Bombus terrestris}
Same as worker

Bombus lucorum

Slightly smaller than Bombus terrestris (above), and with a white tip to her abdomen. Lengths, queen 19-20, worker 11-17, male 14-16. Populations are believed to be declining. More on Bombus lucorum

lucorum Queen lucorum Worker lucorum Male
{Bombus lucorum}
Bombus lucorum male

Bombus lapidarius

Probably the most easy to recognise of all our bumblebees with its black body and bright orange tail. Although its body is as long as that of B. terrestris it is not as heavily built. Lengths, queen 20-22, workers 11-16, male 14-16. The photograph of the male below 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

lapidarius Queen lapidarius Worker lapidarius Male
{Bombus lapidarius}
Very similar to the queen, but usually much smaller.
Bombus lapidarius male

Bombus pratorum

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 15-17, workers 10-14, male 11-13. More on Bombus pratorum

pratorum Queen pratorum Worker pratorum Male
{Bombus pratorum}
Very similar to the queen, but usually slightly smaller.
{pratorum male}

Bombus hortorum

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. 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. More on Bombus hortorum

hortorum Queen hortorum Worker
hortorum Male
{Bombus hortorum}
Similar to queen, but usually slightly smaller.
Bombus hortorum male

Bombus pascuorum

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. 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

pascuorum Queen pascuorum Worker
pascuorum Male
{Bombus pascuorum}
Similar to the queen but smaller.
Similar to the queen, but slightly smaller.

*Images taken from the excellent book Bumblebees, published by The Richmond Publishing Company Ltd., P.O. Box 963, Slough, SL2 3RS, U.K. rpc@richmond.co.uk