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About bumblebees

Bumblebees are large, furry, and charismatic insects that belong to a group of insects called the Hymenoptera. This group includes all the other bees, as well as sawflies, ants, and wasps. Bumblebees are well-known for their meandering, ‘bumbling’ flight, and their distinctive loud buzz – which is where their scientific name Bombus (meaning ‘booming’) comes from.

A close-up of a Buff-tailed bumblebee queen looking to the camera.

Bumblebee diversity

Across the world there are around 270 different species of bumblebee. Thought to have originally evolved around the Himalayas, bumblebees are well adapted to deal with the cooler climates found in the temperate regions where they are mostly found.

There are currently 24 different species of bumblebee in the UK. At one time we had three more species in Britain but sadly they are no longer found here. Cullum’s bumblebee (Bombus cullumanus) was last recorded on the Berkshire Downs in 1941, and the Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), was last seen at Dungeness in 1988 and officially declared extinct in 2000. Additionally, the Apple bumblebee (Bombus pomorum) was only found for a short time on the south coast in the mid-1800s.

We can split these 24 species into two main groups based on their lifecycle. In the 18 social species the queens make their own nests, produce daughter ‘worker’ bumblebees and collect pollen. The other six species have a parasitic lifestyle, taking over existing nests that were established by social species. These species are known as ‘cuckoo’ bumblebees and don’t have workers, just females and males, and don’t collect pollen. Cuckoo bumblebees can be found in the same areas as their social species host but in much lower numbers.

Bumblebees and honeybees

Bumblebees are often confused with honeybees.

One key difference is that, unlike the honeybee, bumblebees do not make honey as they do not need to store food for winter.

Instead, new bumblebee queens mate in late summer and then hibernate over winter while all the other bumblebees (workers and males) naturally die off. This is a great way to avoid the energy costs of trying to stay active over winter when there is very little food around.

Education Officer, Andy breaks down the top five differences between bumblebees and honeybees.

Bumblebees are pollinators

All bumblebees feed on pollen and nectar from flowers and in the process move pollen between different flowers on the same or different plants. This is called pollination and is a hugely important job. Without pollination, and insects like bumblebees, many of our plants wouldn’t produce the fruits and vegetables we love to eat or the seeds that plants need to grow new plants.

An introduction to pollination. What is it, and why is it important?