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Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee

(Bombus rupestris)

A Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee feeding on a pink flower.
A woman standing in a field of wildflowers looking for bumblebees.

Tilly Hopkins

Status
This is a less common but still widespread bumblebee, found mostly in England and Wales although it is spreading northwards.

Where to find
They are found in most habitats (gardens, parks, and the wider countryside) where their host species, the Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) is present.

A Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee dusted in pollen and feeding from a pink flower.

Nick Owens

Active period

Red-tailed cuckoo females emerge from hibernation between April and June.

It is a cuckoo bumblebee so doesn’t have a worker caste, and new females and males can be seen up to the end of August.

An identification illustration of a Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee female and male.

Description

Females are black, with a red tail that extends up to half of the abdomen and almost completely black wing membranes. Males have indistinct greyish-yellow-coloured bands at the front and back of the thorax, and often show two narrow, indistinct bands on the abdomen and an orange/red tail.

As with all cuckoo bumblebees, it also has darker wing membranes, hairy hind legs in both sexes (no pollen baskets), and sparser hair which allows the shiny exoskeleton to show through.

This species has a short tongue and it often feeds on flowers such as oxeye daisies and brambles.

Similar species and differences

The Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) and the Red-shanked carder bumblebee (Bombus ruderarius) can appear similar but both have colourless wing membranes, pollen baskets (in females) and denser hair. Male Red-tailed bumblebees also have yellow-haired faces, but males of Red-shanked carders and Red-tailed cuckoos can be very hard to reliably separate without close examination of the individual bees.

The Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola) also has colourless wing membranes, females have pollen baskets, and males have yellow facial hair. The red tail of this species usually extends further up the abdomen too.