Top tips for bumblebee ID
Bumblebees can be very difficult to identify at first, although they are often relatively straightforward!
There are 25 species in Britain, but with queens looking different to males (and sometimes to workers), as well as different colour forms for most species, there can be a bewildering array of different-looking bees. When, later in the year, sun-bleached and worn bees are prevalent, identification can be very tricky indeed!
The first thing to be aware of is that only seven or eight bumblebee species are both widespread and abundant: these species are likely to make up around 95-99% of your bumblebee sightings. There are a further six species (the cuckoo bumblebees) which are parasitic in the nests of these common species and so are largely similarly widespread, but at a much lower abundance. The remaining 11 species tend to be localised or habitat-specific, and are correspondingly rarer, though they can be abundant where present.
Generally, though, even when the rare species are present, the common species will still be more abundant and must be ruled out first. Consequently getting to grips with the Big Eight (Common carder, Red-tailed, Early, Tree, Garden, Heath, Buff-tailed and White-tailed bumblebees) is the major step – our ID pages can help!
Bumblebees have a tendency to hide their distinguishing features by curling up – generally views of the face, tail, stripes and legs are all useful (see our guide to photographing bees for more help here).
Step 1. Tail colour
Bumblebees fall into three rough groups based on tail colour – white-tailed (includes off-white through to yellow), red-tailed, and ‘uniform-tailed’ bees, where the tail is the same colour as the rest of the abdomen (usually ginger). This is the most important thing to start identifying your bumblebee.
Step 2. Banding
The next step is to look at the banding patterns, especially for the white-tailed species. A large number of bumblebees have the classic white-tail, black-and-yellow-bands look, but they vary from one to three thick yellow bands according to species.
Step 3. True or cuckoo bumblebee?
Cuckoo bumblebees, like male ‘true’ bumblebees, have hairy hind legs with no pollen baskets, but they also have relatively dark wing membranes, a v-shaped or gently-scalloped edge to the top of the tail colouration, a small brush of black hairs at the end of the abdomen, and short faces (if your bee has a long face then it’s definitely not a cuckoo).
Step 4. Caste
Working out what caste (queen, worker or male) your bee is can sometimes be easier than getting it to species, and is always helpful in that process.
Queens and workers are generally very similar to each other, with a couple of exceptions. Queen Buff-tailed bumblebees have an orangey-buff tail, whereas workers of the same species have white tails (and are thus often indistinguishable from worker White-tailed bumblebees). Additionally, worker Early bumblebees often lose the yellow abdominal band of the queen, looking much darker than their parent.
Generally, male bumblebees have hairy hind legs without a pollen basket (though beware female cuckoo bees, which also have hairy hind legs). Males also usually have more facial hair than females (either queens or workers) – and in several species this is a bright, obvious yellow. Males also generally have longer, more straggly hair, so if your bee has hairy legs, a moustache, and looks slightly unkempt it’s probably a male.
Behaviour can be a useful tool to separate males from workers and queens: because males do not have to collect pollen for the nest, they tend to sit lazily on flowers. They may also be observed flying along hedgerows searching for a mate. They do not feed during this time, so will land briefly on a surface, and then fly off again. They often patrol the same area for a while, so you may see the same bee repeating the circuit over and over again. In contrast, females tend to be much busier, flying quickly from flower to flower, and rarely wasting time by resting on flowers.
The time of year can also be helpful – males become common in late summer and autumn, whereas females are present throughout the whole lifecycle.
Other features to watch out for…
Some bumblebees also produce melanic individuals. These produce much larger quantities of a black pigment, melanin, than normal, and so look much darker. Some species produce entirely-black individuals (such as the Ruderal bumblebee), while others only produce partly-melanic bees (such as the Tree bumblebee, where the thorax is black but the white tail remains present). However, there are often the remnants of the ‘normal’ markings, though it may take a strong light to see them!
Above all, identifying bumblebees takes patience. Practice is key, ideally aided by confirming your tentative IDs by showing pictures to an expert, or better yet going out in the field with them. A Bumblebee Conservation Trust ID training course is ideal for this! Check out our events calendar to see when the next course near you will take place.
Photo credits: Bill Temples, Nikki Gammans, Les Moore