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Photo: Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) by Tom Luck

Identifying bumblebees

At first glance bumblebees are large, round and hairy, and often have colourful patterns. Some of them look quite similar, but with a little practice and knowledge of which features to focus on you’ll soon start to tell them apart.

A Buff-tailed bumblebee feeding on the purple flowers of lavender.

How to identify bumblebees

The first thing to know is that there are 24 different species of bumblebee in the UK. These 24 are made up of 18 social species with queen, worker and male forms (which we call castes), and 6 cuckoo species which only have female and male castes.

For some species all castes look the same and in other species there are differences between the females and males. This can make identification tricky, but there are several features that we can use as clues to help identify which bumblebee we are looking at.

The key features for identification are the tail colour and banding pattern.

There are three main bumblebee tail colours: white/buff, red/orange and ginger/yellow. The tail colour can cover just the tip of the abdomen or extend to cover most of the abdomen.

The banding pattern can consist of one, two or three bands over the thorax and or the abdomen. Bands can vary in both strength of colour and thickness.

Other helpful features are legs (presence or absence of pollen baskets), antenna (number of segments), face (long or short) and colour of facial hair.

Check the distribution map to see if a species is likely to be found in your area. Bumblebee species can be:

  • Common and widespread. Over 95% of bumblebee sightings are likely to be one of the following ‘big eight’ species – Common carder, Red-tailed, Early, Tree, Garden, Heath, Buff-tailed and White-tailed bumblebees.
  • Less common but still widespread over many parts of the UK – Southern cuckoo, Gypsy cuckoo, Forest cuckoo, Barbut’s cuckoo, Red-tailed cuckoo and Field cuckoo bumblebees.
  • Scare and only found in certain areas or habitats – Ruderal, Broken-belted, Red-shanked carder, Bilberry, Brown-banded carder, Moss carder, Great Yellow and Shrill carder bumblebees.

Some other insects look very similar and can trick us into thinking that they are bumblebees. Check out our video for how to tell them apart and, once you know you’re looking at a bumblebee, follow our steps for identification.

Senior Education Officer, Andy Benson gives us an overview of how to identify bumblebees.

Our top tips

Try to get different views of the bumblebee so you can clearly see the tail colour and the banding pattern as well as the other helpful features – legs, antenna, face shape and facial hair colour.

Watch how the bumblebee is behaving. Different species and or castes can behave in distinctive ways which can help narrow the options down. Males don’t collect pollen for the nest and tend to sit around on flowers. They may also be seen flying repeatedly along hedgerows, landing briefly at times, while searching for a mate. Cuckoo bumblebee (male and female) also tend to be less busy and sit around on flowers. In contrast, workers are much busier as they collect pollen and nectar and are usually seen flying quickly from flower to flower. Queens, who are the largest of the castes, are most commonly seen in spring and late summer when they may be resting or feeding.

Time of year can help too as only queens tend to be around in the early spring with workers appearing a few weeks later and then males being active from early to mid-summer. Different species can have different active periods too, for example the Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) is more active in spring and early summer and are less likely to be seen from mid-summer.

A Ruderal bumblebee dark form feeding on a pale purple flower.

Photo: Ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus) by Tony Ayling

Black bumblebees

Some bumblebee species produce much darker individuals. These ‘melanic’ bumblebees have much larger quantities of a black pigment, called melanin, and so look much darker.

Some species can produce entirely-black individuals (such as the Ruderal bumblebee pictured), while others only produce partly-melanic bees (such as the Tree bumblebee, where the thorax can be black but the white tail is still present). However, there are often the remnants of the ‘normal’ markings, though it may take a strong light to see them!

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© Tom LuckTwo members of staff looking closely at a sunflower with a Brown-banded carder bumblebee feeding on the centre.

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© Pieter HaringsmaA Moss carder bumblebee feeding on a bright yellow flower.

Scientific research

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© Bex CartwrightA Garden bumblebee feeding on a purple flower.

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