6 bumblebees commonly seen in the UK and how to recognise them
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 website should be enough.
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.
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 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
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
similar to the queen, but usually much smaller.
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
similar to the queen, but usually slightly smaller.
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
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