There are about 19 different species of bumblebee (and six species of cuckoo bumblebees) found in the UK. On this page I will show you how to recognise some of the less common species, the common species are found on this page, 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.
Males have slightly longer antennae, bigger eyes, no sting and no pollen basket.
Workers are usually smaller than the queen.
First recorded in the UK in 2001 in Hampshire. Now found in southern England as far north as southern Scotland. It is easy to recognise as it has a ginger thorax and a black abdomen with white tip. It has been most commonly found in gardens, and often nests in bird nest boxes. The queen may have some yellow hairs on her abdomen. Males can have some yellow hairs on the face. Queens are known to have multiple matings, although genetic studies have shown that most of the resulting offspring have the genes of a single male. Males have been noticed hovering in groups outside the entrance to bird nest boxes where there is a hypnorum nest with new queens ready to emerge. It is presumed they are waiting to mate with the new queens.
Body lengths, queen 18 mm, worker 14 mm, male 16 mm.
The photograph above was sent in by Julia Hedges. It clearly shows the size difference between the queen and male, and also that the male has a band of red/ginger on his abdomen which is absent on the queen. Workers are similar to the queen, but smaller.
If you have always wondered what goes on inside a bumblebee nest then click on this page click here.
Often found in heath and moorland. More frequent in Scotland, in southern England. It is found in gardens and calcareous grassland as well as heathland. The queen (left) and workers look the same, the male (right) has more yellow.
Body lengths, queen 16 mm, worker 12mm, male 12mm.
Workers and queens can be intermediate (above) or pale (below left), males tend to be pale. There is also a dark form (right). Now found in just a few sites in England, and almost extinct, however it flourishes in New Zealand where they were introduced in 1885. Also has been found in Argentina since 1994, and may be causing the decline of the native B. dahlbomii. Prefers flower-rich areas, especially those with vetches, clover and nettle. Prefers to nest underground.
Body lengths, queen 22 mm, worker 16 mm, male 15 mm.
A lowland species found mainly in Southern England. Queens and workers (above) have pollen baskets framed with reddish hairs. Males (below) are similar to Bombus lapidarius
The UK status for this bumblebee is nationally scarce. The preferred nest site is on or just below ground.
Body lengths, queen 17 mm, worker 15 mm, male 13 mm.
In UK found in only 7 sites in S. E. England. Population is declining steeply. Preferred nest sites are on or just below the ground. Has a higher pitched buzz than other bumblebees.
Body lengths, queen 17 mm, worker 14 mm, male 13 mm.
A moorland species, often found pollinating bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), cowberry and cranberry. Found in declining numbers in the north and western highlands.
Body lengths, queen 16 mm (above left) , worker 12 mm, male 14 mm (above right).
Prefers heathlands and uplands in the Hebrides, and calcareous grassland in southern England. Is more frequent in Scotland, and declining in the south, not recorded in Ireland. Nests underground in old mammal burrows. Successful nests can have up to 150 workers. Note the break in the yellow band on the abdomen (queen and worker, above left). The male (above right) has a thin line of ginger hairs between the white of the tail and black of the abdomen.
Body lengths, queen 16 mm, worker, 12 mm, male 13 mm.
Restricted to coastal sites in Northern Scotland. Nests just below or on the ground surface. In the UK this species is listed as nationally scarce.
Body lengths, queen 20 mm, worker 16 mm, male 15 mm.
Uncommon, prefers moorland, fen and salt marshes. Nests on ground surface. No black hairs on abdomen. Population has declined, and it is now very rare and found on a few Hebridean islands.The preferred nest site is on or just below the ground.
Body lengths, queen 18 mm, worker 14 mm, male 14 mm.
Restricted to southern England coastal and chalkland areas, very similar to Bombus muscorum (above), no black hairs on abdomen. The UK status of this bumblebee is local. The preferred nest site is on or just below ground.
Body lengths, queen 17 mm, worker 13 mm, male 13 mm.
Declared extinct in 2000. Rare, restricted to S. England on flower-rich heathland and grassland, however it flourishes in New Zealand where it was introduced in 1885, and is now found on the shingle margins of large lakes. Queen and workers above left, males above right. Nests below the surface. There are plans to re-introduce this species into Kent in England from New Zealand. This did not work out, but it was introduced from queens taken over from Scandanavia.
*Images taken from the excellent book Bumblebees, published by Pelagic Publishing.