Skip to main content

Buff-tailed bumblebee

(Bombus terrestris)

A close-up of a Buff-tailed bumblebee in mid-flight with its long tongue sticking out.
A group of staff and volunteers standing in a field of wildflowers as they look for bumblebees.

Status

This is one of the Big Eight common and widespread bumblebees.

Where to find

They are found in most habitats (gardens, parks, and the wider countryside) apart from high uplands

Active period

Buff-tailed bumblebee queens are some of the first queens to emerge in late winter/early spring and can be seen from February onwards.

Workers appear roughly 6 weeks after the nest is established and new queens and males are produced towards the end of the three to four month nesting period. This species can be seen up to the end of September.

In southern parts of the UK, as well as in cities further north, this species can also be winter-active. Nests are established in October-November, and workers can be seen foraging all winter on Mahonia and other winter-flowering plants, before males and new queens emerge in early spring.

Description

This is a large species with golden yellow bands at the front of the thorax and across the middle of the abdomen. Queens have a yellow-brown buff-coloured tail, while workers and males have white tails, sometimes with a narrow yellow-buff border between the abdomen colour and the tail (the ‘tea-stain’). This is often not visible and the workers are best recorded as ‘White/Buff-tailed bumblebee workers’.

Buff-tailed bumblebees usually nest underground in old rodent holes. Nests can be large and have around 350 workers.

This species has a short tongue, and it feeds on a wide range of plants, though it struggles with long, tubular flowers due to the short tongue.

Similar species and differences

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) queens have the same banding pattern, but their yellow bands tend to be more lemon-yellow, and the tail is pure white with no buff. White-tailed workers are very similar to both Buff-tailed workers and males but never have any buff in the tail. Generally, the workers of these two species cannot be told apart.

The Southern cuckoo (Bombus vestalis), Gypsy cuckoo (Bombus bohemicus) and Forest cuckoo (Bombus sylvestris) bumblebees can look similar to worker or male Buff-tailed bumblebees, but the first two usually have yellow patches on either side of the abdomen, at the front of the tail, and males of the Forest cuckoo have a red or orange tip to the tail. All three species also have the hairy hind legs characteristic of both sexes of cuckoo bumblebees.

The Broken-belted bumblebee (Bombus soroeensis) has a similar pattern, but the crescent-shaped yellow abdominal band extends forwards onto the first abdominal segment (always a rectangular band only on the second segment in Buff-tailed bumblebees), and in males the front of the white tail often contains a thick orange fringe, rather than buff. The Broken-belted bumblebee is a much scarcer species, mostly found in upland areas.