How to identify bumblebees

Prof Dave Goulson

16 May 2016

Pause, take some time out, and find out how to spot a few of the 26 species of bumblebee that exist in the UK.

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Now is a great time of year to pay a little attention to some of the small, but vitally important, creatures that live all around us, but that we often take for granted – our bumblebees.

At this time of year the queen bumblebees have just come out of hibernation – huge, furry zeppelins of the insect world. If you have bee-friendly flowers in your garden you will see them hungrily feeding, for they haven’t had a meal for seven months.

Once they are replete, you’ll see them flying low to the ground – they are hoping to find a hole that leads down to a cosy abandoned mouse nest, their favourite place to build their own nest. Bumblebees are wild creatures, cousins of the smaller, more drab honeybees that we keep in hives.

Take a moment to watch them and you will soon see that there are different types – we have 26 species in the UK, and you can easily see seven different ones in any garden or park. Learn these seven and you can amaze and amuse (or annoy) your friends by pointing out the different types.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Buff-tailed bumblebee ©Amelia Collins

1. Most common is the buff-tailed bumblebee, one of the biggest, with two golden yellow stripes and a brownish tail.

White-tailed bumblebee
White-tailed bumblebee

2. The white-tailed bumblebee is quite similar but as the name suggests, the tail is white, and the yellow stripes a paler, more lemony yellow. Once you have those two sorted it gets easier.

Garden bumblebee
Garden bumblebee ©Steven Falk


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3. Look out for the garden bumblebee, like the white-tailed but with three yellow stripes and an enormously long tongue, half the length of its own body, that it uses to suck nectar from deep flowers that other bumblebees cannot reach.

Red-tailed bumblebee
Red-tailed bumblebee

4. The red-tailed bumblebee is a piece of cake – velvety black with a bright red bottom.

Common carder bumblebee
Common carder bumblebee ©Steven Falk

5. Then there is the common carder bumblebee – a drab gingery brown all over.

Early bumblebee
Early bumblebee ©Steven Falk

6. The early bumblebee is a sweet little bumblebee, smaller than the others, with two yellow stripes and a rusty red bottom.

Tree Bumblebee
Tree bumblebee ©Steven Falk

7. Finally, the tree bumblebee, chestnut brown at the front, black in the middle, with a white bottom. Unlike the others, it likes to nest in holes in trees, hence the name.

Take your time. There is no rush. The bees will be with us now until the end of summer. Move slowly and you can get very close to them – they are very docile and will never sting so long as you don’t grab them in your hand.

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He is author of A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, both published by Vintage. Read Prof Goulson's own list of best flowers for bees.

This article was first published by the The Big Issue.

If you would like to learn more about the bees and other pollinators in your garden, and take part in national surveys, have a look at the web pages of the Buzz Club.

First published on 26 May 2015


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Bumblebee on Pieris japonica