Tails: Our common bumblebees have tails that are either white, red, buff or brown. Some colours may fade as the bee gets older, so ‘red’ tails may begin to appear buff or orange in late summer. Also, some species have a tail that is confined to the end of the abdomen, so it can be hard to see. This is particularly true for the Early bumblebee.
Coloured bands: Look at the number, colour and position of bands.
Differences between male and female: Males of some species have yellow hair on their head and faces. The shape of the underside of the abdomen is useful (where the sting comes out from a female). The antennae of males are longer, thicker and tend to be curved. Female antennae are shorter, narrower and tend to be elbowed.
Behaviour: Males don’t have a role to play in the running and maintenance of the nest and only have themselves to look out for; there’s no urgency for them to collect pollen or nectar, so sometimes can be seen sitting lazily on flowers. Their main aim in life however is to try to mate with a queen, so 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 in separating males and females – males become more common in late summer and autumn, whereas females are present throughout the whole lifecycle.
‘True’ and cuckoo bumblebees
‘True’ bumblebee workers and queens collect pollen, so they always have a back leg that has a broad shiny surface, or has a ball of pollen stuck to it. This surface is called the ‘pollen basket’. Cuckoo bumblebees do not collect pollen at all, so this part of their leg is covered in thick dark hair, and is often narrow. To make matters more confusing, ‘true bumblebee’ male legs look similar to cuckoo legs, but they have what may be described as an ‘incomplete basket’, with a few hairs encroaching onto the surface.
Species identified here: 1) White-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lucorum; 2) Garden Bumblebee– Bombus hortorum; 3) Buff-tailed Bumblebee–Bombus terrestris 4) Common Carder bee – Bombus pascuorum 5) Red-tailed Bumblebee – Bombus lapidarius 6) Early Bumblebee Bombus pascorum 7) Tree Bumblebee–Bombus hypnorum
1) White-tailed Bumblebee – Bombus lucorum
Length: Queen c. 22mm; Worker 10-16mm
Status – Common and widespread; one of the most familiar of bumblebees that is usually common in gardens.
Description: The adult bumblebee has a bright yellow collar and band at the front of the abdomen. All individuals have a white-tipped abdomen.
Nests in holes in the ground.
2) Garden Bumblebee – bombus hortorum
Length: 12-20mm Status: Common & widespread, often found in gardens
A shaggy-coated bumblebee. Queens, workers and males have the same pattern: three yellow bands (at the front and rear of the thorax and a third band at the front of the abdomen). The tail is a clean white colour.
The face is distinctly long, differentiating it from other species with similar banding, such as the Heath bumblebee. It is a very long tongued species that prefers flowers with deep tubes.
Life History: Nests at ground level or just below.
3) Buff-tailed Bumblebee-Bombus terrestris
Length: Queen c.22mm; Worker 10-16mm
Status: Common & widespread, often found in gardens
Queens, workers and males have a dirty/golden-yellow collar near the head and one on the abdomen. The queen’s tail is an off white/buff colour which can sometimes appear orange.
Workers have a white tail with a subtle buff line separating the tail from the rest of the abdomen.
Males have a buff-tinged tail. Unlike many species, the Buff-tailed male’s facial hair is black as opposed to yellow.
4) Common Carder bee – bombus pascuorum
Length: Queen 15-18mm; Worker 10-15mm
The Common Carder is the only common UK bumblebee that is mostly brown or ginger.
The thorax has a dense tawny brown or ginger coat. The abdomen is covered with a mixture of black and brown hairs and is quite thin, but the shade varies significantly, depending on the location. Some have abdomens which are very dark, while the abdomens of others can be quite light. The pollen baskets are dark.
The nest may be on or above the ground and occurs in a wide variety of habitats. It is one of the last bees to disappear in the Autumn, and can often be seen flying well into November.
5) Red-tailed Bumblebee – Bombus lapidarius
Length: Queen 20-22mm; Worker 12-16mm
A large, but relatively slender bee that can be distinguished from most other British bumblebees as queens and workers have a distinctive jet-black body with an orange-red tail.
The hairs on the pollen baskets (on the hind legs) of the female are all black, but these may be red in males.
Male Red-tailed bumblebees are easier to spot than males of other species as they have distinct yellow facial hairs and a yellow band on the thorax, a black abdomen and a bright orange-red tail.
6) Early Bumblebee-bombus pratorum
Bombus pratorum, is also known as the Early-nesting Bumblebee, and so-called as it is among the earliest of the bumblebees to emerge from hibernation. It is common in gardens and many other habitats.
Length: Queen:15-18mm; Workers & males 9-15mm
A bumblebee that has quite long hair, giving it a ‘fluffy’ appearance, with a yellow collar and a conspicuous orange-red tail.
There is usually a yellow band on the 2nd abdominal segment, but this is often broken in the middle and may be missing altogether in some workers and some individuals can be extensively dark or yellow in their colouring.
Life history: Once emerged from hibernation, queens will seek a suitable nest site in a variety of places. They are adaptable, and may make a nest in a disused bird nest, rockery crevice, rodent hole, or a roof space of a building. The first workers may appear from March, and males and daughter queens around May. Colonies are thought to reach about 100 workers. There will often be two generations reared in a year, particularly in the south of England.
Parasites and predators: Bombus pratorum is the host species of the cuckoo bumblebee Bombus sylvestris. Parasites include Sphaerophoria bombi, and tachinid fly Brachicoma devia.
7) Tree Bumblebee-bombus hypnorum
B. hypnorum occurs naturally in Mainland Europe, through Asia and up to the Arctic Circle. It was first found in the UK in 2001, in Wiltshire; but must have arrived from Mainland Europe. It has spread rapidly and is now present in most of England and much of Wales, where it can be very common in late spring to early summer. In 2013 it reached southern Scotland.
Length: Queens c 22mm Workers 10-16mm
Queens, workers and males all have same patterning. The head is orange-brown (ginger), the thorax is black and tail white. Thorax colour is variable; there are many dark B. hypnorum bees, but they always have a white tail. Sometimes bees have very worn fur on the central part of their thorax, which makes it look like they are going bald; this can add to their apparent darkness.
Queens vary significantly in size, with a range similar to that of the White-tailed bumblebee, B. lucorum. Workers are quite small.
Drones are chunky, about twice the size of a honey bee, have blunter ends to their abdomens and longer antennae. Fresh drones have a patch of yellowish facial fur, but this wears off with time.
The species is most likely to be seen from March until July, but does sometimes occur later in the year.
Life history: This one of the first bumblebee species to be seen in the Spring. By nature it is a ‘Woodland Edge’ species, but has adapted to our human-dominated ecology and is frequently associated with man-made structures. In early Spring, sometimes as early as February, usually March-April, the queens begin “nest searching flights”, looking for somewhere to set up home. The flights are often along vertical surfaces such as fences, house walls at gutter level and around the eaves.
Queens can be enterprising and adaptable in where they choose to set up home. Colonies are usually located well above ground level. Bird-boxes, containing old bird nests are commonly used. Other locations they choose may be holes in trees and places high up in buildings, such as soffit boxes, under roof tiles and at house eaves, using an existing hole to gain access, then walk inside the roof to get to their nest. Roof-space colonies sometimes create their nest directly on the back face of a plasterboard ceiling, using the loft insulation to keep the nest snug. Other places are also used for nest location, such as in compost heaps; but nests at higher level are more common.
Once the nest is established, it will be around six weeks before the workers take over the foraging. The smaller workers stay at home and become ‘House Bees’, the larger ones forage for the colony. It can take four to five months for the colony to go full-cycle and die out. A really strong colony can build up to 300 – 400 bees, maybe more, but most colonies are likely to be smaller. Strong colonies will rear ‘reproductives’ which are virgin queens and/or drones.
Pollination: The bees are highly active, agile, rapid and effective pollinators. Look out for them working flowers that hang downwards, like Raspberry and Comfrey. You might also see them visiting a wide range of other flowers including Winter Heathers, Pussy Willow, Blackcurrant, Gooseberry, Apple, Cotoneaster, Chives, Rose and Snowberry. They may also be seen working Lime Tree, Fuchsia and Blackberry flowers in later summer.
Parasites & predators: Colonies often die out early, due to attack by caterpillars of the Wax Moth Aphomia sociella .
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website has a wealth of information about bumblebees. http://www.bumblebeeconservation.org