There are currently 24 species of bumblebee resident in Britain. Another, the Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), is being reintroduced after going extinct in 1988. Two other species are extinct as British species: Cullum’s bumblebee (Bombus cullumanus) last recorded on the Berkshire Downs in 1941, and the Apple bumblebee (Bombus pomorum), a short-lived establishment on the south coast in the mid-1800s.
Seven species (known as the ‘big 7’) are widespread and abundant across almost all of Britain. These (the Red-tailed, Early, Common carder, White-tailed, Buff-tailed, Garden and Tree bumblebees) are sometimes combined with the Heath bumblebee (Bombus jonellus) to form a ‘big 8’, although the latter is absent from much of the English midlands.
Eight species are listed as species of conservation concern on at least one of the English, Welsh and Scottish conservation priority species lists. Many of these are localised species which can be abundant in the few areas they can still be found; others are more widespread but at a very low population density.
18 species are social species, which make nests, collect pollen and have a worker caste. The remaining six species have a parasitic lifestyle, taking over existing nests established by other species. These species are known as cuckoo bumblebees and don’t have workers, just queens and males. They tend to be widespread but only at a comparatively low abundance.
The British bumblebees can be divided into three approximate groups based on the tail colour of the queens, and their rarity status. In these ID pages, we split the species by queen tail colour, and then sort the species according to their approximate commonality nationwide, commonest first. Some species show variation which fits multiple categories: these are flagged up in an ‘also be aware of’ section at the end of each tail colour category.
There are also many other flying insects which look like bumblebees! Sometimes these are deliberate mimics (such as the hoverfly Volucella bombylans), exploiting most predator’s reluctance to take on something which can fight back. Some look similar because they are closely related to bumblebees (such as the Hairy-footed Flower bee Anthophora plumipes), and sometimes it’s just convergent evolution (for instance the spring-flying parasitic fly Tachina ursina), where the characters that help bumblebees survive (large size, bulky shape, hair, etc.) also favour the survival of other species.
Generally the mimics can be told apart relatively easily: bumblebees are bigger, chunkier, more hairy, and fly more deliberately with a lower-pitched buzz than do most of the similar fly species, and many of the bees. However, sometimes the mimics can be very similar to bumblebees, and short of examining a specimen the best way to separate the groups is to examine the heads. Bumblebees have long, multi-section tubular antennae, long tubular mouthparts (though these are often folded up), and relatively small eyes.