Identifying Bumblebees – A Guide
It can be tricky identifying bumblebees given that there are over 250 species of them across the world and they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Fortunately, with the right information and some practice, it is possible to learn how to quickly identify them. In this guide, we cover the different colors, shapes, and sizes of bumble bee specie and other tips for quickly recognizing them in the wild.
Identification by Tail color – Step 1
Bumblebees can be divided into three distinct categories based on the color of their tail:. They consist of white-tailed (encompassing shades from off-white to yellow), red-tailed, and uniform-tailed bees. This last category consists of bees whose tails are the same color as the rest of the abdomen, which is usually a ginger hue. All three categories of bumblebees are important pollinators and help to maintain the health of their local environment.
Banding – Step 2
Banding of Social White-tailed Bumble Bees
The white-tailed bumblebee may have anywhere between one and three vivid yellow bands adorning its body, depending on the species. This applies to Social and Cuckoo Bumble Bees. White-tailed bumblebees can be identified by the white tail tip they sport on their abdomen.
The bumblebee’s head is mainly black in color and its thorax can either be tan or black. At first glance, the bumblebee’s small size makes it difficult to differentiate between different species, however looking at the bands on its body can be very helpful in distinguishing one type of bumblebee from another.
Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)
The winter-active species Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) is one of the most widespread and abundant bumblebee species. It has an overall black body and bright yellow bands at the front of the thorax and mid-abdomen. It is easy to identify with the help of a few key features. Queens have buff-colored tails, while workers and males have white tails. Males may have a narrow but distinct band of yellow-buff color at the front of their tails. Its wings are dark brown or black in color.
Tree Bumble Bee (Bombus hypnorum)
Tree bumblebees have a distinctive ginger-brown thorax, a black abdomen, and a white tail. Males in particular often have brown first and sometimes second abdominal segments.
Some Tree bumblebees are melanistic (all black) and semi-melanistic. These variations can sometimes be mistaken for the Common carder bumblebee, however, Common carder bees do not have the white tail like the Tree bumblebee.
Heath Bumble Bee (Bombus jonellus)
The Heath Bumblebee generally has a white tail but in some parts of the UK it can also have an orange tail. The latter is more commonly found in Scotland’s Shetland and Western Isles, and can easily be confused with its close relative, the Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum). Both have yellow and black striped thoraxes as well as a yellow band at the front of their abdomens. The males are easily distinguishable by their bright yellow faces. The Heath Bumblebee has a small round face that is as long as it is wide, and has a “shaggy”, unkempt look. Although it looks similar to the parasitic Barbut’s Cuckoo Bumblebee, the cuckoo bee is easy to identify by its missing pollen baskets.
White-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus lucorum)
The White-tailed bumblebee is easily identifiable by its defining features. Its head and thorax are marked with a lemon-yellow collar, while its abdomen has a bright yellow band in the center and a pure white tail. Males of this species are especially distinctive for their bright yellow facial hairs. Workers are almost identical to Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). However, unlike White-tailed bumblebees, the latter sometimes have yellow hairs in the tail. Therefore, it is best to record these bees as terrestris/lucorum so that they can be correctly identified.
Garden Bumble Bee (Bombus hortorum)
The Garden Bumblebee is characterized by a yellow-black-yellow thorax, a yellow band at the base of the abdomen, and a pure white tail. The face is between 1.1 and 1.4 times as long as wide. Males feature black hair around the mandibles. The female garden bumble bee has pollen baskets which distinguish it from the similar-looking Barbut’s cuckoo-bumblebee (Bombus barbutellus).
Often confused with the Ruderal Bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus), or Large Garden Bumblebee, these two species are almost impossible to differentiate in nature.
Ruderal Bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus)
The Ruderal bumblebee is the largest species among other bumblebees. All three castes of this species are very similar. They have a yellow-black-yellow thorax, a yellow band at the base of the abdomen, and a pure white tail. It is usually larger than the similar looking Garden bumblebee, Heath bumblebee and the parasitic Barbut’s cuckoo bumblebee. Male Ruderal bumblebees can be distinguished from the garden bee by the color of hair around their mandibles. The Ruderal bumblebee has ginger hair, whereas that of the garden bumblebee is black. Females are more difficult to differentiate, and the only reliable method is to measure the length of the face, which is longer than the garden bumblebee (over 1.5 times as long as wide)..
The thoracic yellow bands of the Ruderal bumblebee are more equal in size than those of the garden bee. The Garden bumblebee has a wider front band than back. In addition, the abdominal band is constrained to the first abdominal segment in Ruderal bees. This species also produces melanic (all black) individuals far more frequently than other bumblebee species. All-black bumblebees are likely to be the Ruderal bumblebee.
Broken-belted Bumblebee (Bombus soroeensis)
The Broken-belted Bumblebee has a vivid yellow band running across the front of its thorax. The white tail is often beige at the front with scatters of yellow hair. As well as this, the band on its abdomen typically appears broken in two places, giving it a crescent-shaped bar across the abdomen. However, the broken band is not a reliable identification mark because the similar-looking White-tailed bumble bee band often appears broken to wear.
The Broken-belted Bumblebee is a large species, measuring around 17–22mm in length and with a wingspan of around 32–38mm. Males of this species have forked antennae and are usually smaller than female workers.
Banding of Cuckoo White-tailed Bumble Bees
Cuckoo bumblebees are well-known for their habit of taking over the nests of other bumblebee species. This behavior is seen in all cuckoo bumblebee species, and is the primary reason that they are known as cuckoos. Because they do not collect pollen for their brood they have no workers. Interestingly, a study found that Cuckoo male bumblebees perform slower and visit flowers for longer than free-living male and worker bumblebees.
Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee (Bombus vestalis)
The Southern cuckoo bumblebee take over the nests of the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). It is characterized by its distinct yellow collar around the thorax. It has a white tail with large yellow patches on either side of the abdomen at the beginning of the tail. Some males also have a faint yellow band at the front of the abdomen. They look very similar to the Gypsy cuckoo bumblebee but these have a lot smaller yellow side patches.
Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee (Bombus sylvestris)
The Forest cuckoo bumblebee is a widespread and common species, known to be parasitic on the Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), the Heath bumblebee (Bombus jonellis), and the Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola). They are a small species, with darkened wings, a yellow thoracic collar and a yellow abdominal band with a white tail. The very tip of the tail is orange in males and black in females. Characteristic for the female is curled-up tip of the abdomen. This is not found in other species. Males can also sometimes show an extra yellow band at the rear of the thorax or at the front of the abdomen.
Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus bohemicus)
The variable species of the Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee is identified by its darkened wings. A consistent feature is a yellow collar on its thorax and the white tail that has a small pale yellow patch on both sides of the abdomen at the beginning of the tail. Males can also have a second yellow band behind the thorax. The Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee takes over the nests of the White-tailed-, Northern white-tailed- (Bombus magnus) and Cryptic bumblebee, Bombus cryptarum).
Barbuts Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus barbutellus)
Barbuts are a large species of cuckoo bumblebee that invade the nests of Garden and Ruderal bumblebees (Bombus hortorum and Bombus ruderatus, respectively). The body of this species is yellow-black-yellow on its thorax, with the first abdominal segment being yellow. It is distinguished from its hosts by its shorter face, which is as long as it is wide.
Banding of Social Red-tailed Bumble Bees
Red-tailed bumble bees come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from small to large. They have yellow and black stripes, with a red tail across their thorax and abdomen. The intensity of the red coloration can vary. It may be more orange or even yellowish depending on the species. Additionally, some species can have no yellow bands, or they may have several, depending on the species and caste. Male bumblebees are usually smaller than females and can sometimes have a distinctive yellow “face mask”.
Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)
The Early bumblebee is a small species of bee, typically with a red tail that can range in hue and size. The yellow abdominal stripe is often smaller in workers or missing completely. Males often have a lot of yellow with very obvious facial hairs. This species is similar to the Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) and Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola), but typically has a much smaller and duller red tail. It also resembles the orange-tailed Scottish Isles form of the Heath bumblebee (Bombus jonellus), however, this species does not co-occur with the Early bumblebee.
Red-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus lapidarius)
The queen and the workers of the Red-tailed bumble bee are jet-black. They have a bright red tail that covers almost half their abdomen. Drones faces have yellow facial hair with bright yellow bands at the front and back of the thorax. Like their female counterparts, they also have red tails that can appear yellow or even white in older specimens due to fading. One of their predators is the Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus rupestris). Female Red-tailed cuckoo bees can be told apart from its social counterpart by their very dark wings. Males by their yellow-gray bands. The Red-tailed bumble bee looks similar to the Red-shanked carder (Bombus ruderarius), only with a longer face and rounder abdomen. Male Red-tailed bumble bees are recognized by the long red hairs on their hind tibia and yellow facial hairs. Red-tailed cuckoo or Red-shanked carder bees do not have this.
Billberry Bumble Bee (Bombus monticola)
The Billberry Bumble Bee has distinct yellow bands across its thorax and a vibrant orange-red tail covering around two-thirds of its abdomen. Similar-looking bees are the Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), the Heath bumblebee (Bombus jonellus), and males of the Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) although their red tail does not extend over half of the abdomen.
Red shanked Bumble Bee (Bombus ruderarius)
The rare Red-shanked Bumble Bee looks extremely similar to the red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius). It can only be held apart from the latter by its red tibial hairs around the pollen baskets, the long face, and a rounder, and generally smaller abdomen. The bands of the drones are grayish-yellow. They are similar to the larger Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus rupestris) but a lot lighter than Red-tailed bumblebee drones.
Red-tailed Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus rupestris)
The Red-tailed Cuckoo Bumble Bee is a large bee species with a square-shaped head. Females and males both have a red tail, but the female has little body hair and almost black wings. The drones’ wings are usually less dark and have indistinct grayish-yellow bands. In addition, they lack the yellow facial hair of the social Red-tailed (Bombus lapidarius) and Early bumble bee (Bombus pratorum).
Banding of Social Ginger-yellow Bumble Bees
As the name suggests, ginger-yellow bumble bees mostly have the same consistent ginger-yellow hue all over their body, with several bands of darker shades. The hairs on their bodies are typically short and stubbly, while the legs tend to be black. Another way to tell ginger-yellow bumble bees apart is by their wings, which are held straight up. Drones have bright yellow margins on the front of their wings. These bees live in meadows and gardens across the northern hemisphere.
Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)
The Common carder bee is one of three species of bumblebees with a remarkably similar appearance. These are the Common carder bee, the Moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum), and the Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis). All are ginger- brown in color with no obvious tail. However, the common carder bees abdomen has black hairs, which can be used to distinguish it from the two rarer species.
The female Common carder bees usually have creamy-white sides to their thorax, while males tend to be more yellow in color with more prominent facial hair tufts.
Moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum)
See Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum).
Shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum)
The Shrill Carder Bumblebee is distinctive grayish-green or straw-like in color. It has an orange colored tail that is not very bright and a clear black band across the thorax. It looks similar to the Great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) and the Field cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus campestris) that also both have a black band. The banding pattern of the drones is often confused with the Red-shanked carder bumblebee (Bombus ruderarius). However, the Red-shanked carder´s bands are a lot darker and its red tail much brighter than the Shrill carder bee.
Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis)
The Brown-banded carder bee is the rarest of the three all-ginger carder bumblebees. Queens, drones and workers look similar being, ginger-brown all over with no clearly-delineated tail. They often have a darker brown band on the second segment of their abdomen. Separating the three ginger carders can be very difficult as they look extremely similar.
Great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus)
The Great Yellow Bumblebee is a large and rare species. Its abdomen and thorax have a distinct cover of sandy-yellow hair that is missing on the black band that stretches across the thorax between the bases of its wing. It looks similar to the male Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus). Another similar-looking bee is the Field cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus campestris) although it can be separated by its short face and lack of pollen baskets.
Banding of Ginger-yellow Cuckoo Bumble Bees
Field cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus campestris)
Field cuckoo bumble bees take over the nests of carder bumblebees, mainly that of the Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). However, they were also spotted to invade nests of the Brown-banded carder bee, the Moss carder bee, the Red-shanked carder bee and the Shrill carder bee. Field cuckoo bees have the typical dark wings of the cuckoo species. They are usually very yelllow and have a yellow-black thorax with a narrow black strip on the top. On either side of their abdomen are large yellow patches that are often so big that the entire abdomen looks yellow. Males have black hairs at the tip of their tail, unlike the otherwise similar-looking Forest cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus sylvestris) that has an orange tip.
´True´ Bumble Bee or Cuckoo Bumble Bee? Step 3
Cuckoo bumblebees are usually easy to identify by their physical traits. They have dark-colored wing membranes, a v-shaped or gently-scalloped edge to the top of the tail coloration, and a small brush of black hairs at the end of their abdomens. Additionally, cuckoo bumblebees faces are usually smaller and slimmer than their true bumblebee counterparts. The true bumblebee’s face is noticeably longer than that of the cuckoo bumblebee. Lastly, cuckoo bumblebees do not have distinct pollen baskets on their hind legs like true bumblebees. If a bee has these pollen baskets, it is definitely not a cuckoo.
Caste Step 4
Being able to accurately identify the caste of a bee (queen, worker, or male) is a valuable part of the process of determining a bee’s species. Once the caste of a bee has been identified, it is easier to narrow down the list of potential species. For example, if you come across a bee that is clearly a worker, it is much easier to identify than if the caste is unknown.
Usually queens and workers are very similar. However, there are a couple of exceptions. Whereas the tail of the Buff-tailed bumblebee queen is orangey, workers of the same species have white tails. This is why they often get confused with White-tailed bumblebee workers). Another exception are Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) workers. The yellow abdominal band of the queen is often lost, which makes them look much darker than their parent.
Male bumblebees tend to sport hairy hind legs that lack a pollen basket. Keep in mind that female cuckoo bees also have hairy hind legs. Males also often have more facial hair than females, and in several species, the color of this is a bright yellow. Additionally, males typically have longer and more straggly hair than their female counterparts. Therefore, if you spot a bee with hairy legs, facial hair in the shape of a mustache, and a slightly unkempt look, it’s likely to be a male bumblebee.