Six species are widespread among regions of Britain. They tend to be nearly ubiquitous among sites within these regions and are often abundant at each site. Most bees encountered will belong to this group. Most of these species will occur together at most flower-rich sites on the English mainland.
Lengths, queen 20-22, worker 11-17, male 14-16. Bombus terrestris is one of the main species used in greenhouse pollination, and consequently can be found in many countries and areas where it is not native; Tasmania for example.
Distinguishing similar species: Unlike orange-tailed B. jonellus, B. pratorum queens and workers lack a pale band at the rear of the thorax; and the males can be distinguished by their genitalia.
While bees are highly adept at discrimination tasks, they are still limited by the magnitude of difference needed in hue to properly carry out these tests. Error rates of color recognition decrease in B. terrestris when flower pigments are closer together on the color spectrum. This might have damaging effects on pollination efficiency if bees visit different flower species with similar, but distinct colors, which can only be mediated if the flowers have unique shapes.
The Bombus lucorum male below was found dead in July. The tip of one of his antennae is missing, but apart from that and some disarray to his wings, he was intact.
Bombus terrestris is our largest bumblebee, and usually the first to emerge. The thing to note on the queen is the dirty orange colour of the hairs at the end of the abdomen (below), although on continental Europe and in the Channel Islands the tail of the queen is white. Also when Bombus terrestris and B. lucorum can be seen together the yellow hairs of B. terrestris appear more orangey while those of B. lucorum are more lemon yellow.
On the Leicestershire & Rutland map above, red = NatureSpot records, green = NBN records. You can add a dot to this map if you submit a wildlife sighting (with or without an image). You can also find out more about these species distribution maps on our Maps help page.
Bees are amazing - not only do they fulfil a vital role in our ecosystem, they are one of the most complex and sophisticated living things in the history of evolution.
For most species, worker females have the same colour patterns as the queens, but are smaller. Males sometimes look similar to the queens and worker females, but usually have more yellow hair, especially on the head and thorax.
'Large Earth Humble-bee' (Sladen, 1912) 'Buff-tailed Humble-bee' (Step, 1932) 'Buff-tailed bumblebee' (Benton, 2000, BBCT) taxonomy and nomenclature
'Small Earth Humble-bee' (Sladen, 1912; Step, 1932) 'White-tailed bumblebee' (Benton, 2000, BBCT) taxonomy and nomenclature
You should now be able to identify almost all of the bumblebees you'll ever come across! If you don’t recognise the bee you have seen from the ones above, it may be one of our more scarce bumblebees. While not common in most areas, these may be found in certain habitats. Click here to go to our page with the less common bumblebees.
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Slightly smaller than Bombus terrestris, and with a white tip to her abdomen. Lengths, queen (below) 19-20,
To view photos of each species, visit our photo gallery. See the bottom of this page for a video on identifying the common species.
The Buff-tailed bumblebee can be found in a number of locations including: Europe, United Kingdom, Wales. Find out more about these places and what else lives there.
The queen, male and worker buff-tailed bumblebees all have a yellow collar near the head and another on the abdomen. The queen has an off-white/buff colour ‘tail’ while the workers have a white ‘tail’ with a faint buff line separating tail from the rest of the abdomen. Males have a buff-tinged tail and also have black hair on their face; in many other bumblebee species the males have yellow faces.
The Buff-tailed Bumblebee has a short tongue so it favours foraging for pollen in short open flowering plants such as comfrey, lavender and a wide range of crop plants. The bumblebee will also bite holes through the base of longer flowers to 'rob' nectar without pollinating them!
While bees often forage alone, experiments demonstrate that young foragers might learn what flowers provide the most nectar more quickly when foraging with older workers. B. terrestris individuals have a faster learning curve for visiting unfamiliar, yet rewarding flowers, when they can see a conspecific foraging on the same species. The discovery of this type of associative learning is a novel insight into bee behavior and may supplement learning via color reward association.
Both species have comparatively short tongues for bumblebees, so they tend to forage on flowers with short corollas and daisy-type flowers. However they are accomplished nectar robbers.
A common bee throughout Britain, although outside of England most records seem to be coastal.
Queens and workers have a distinctive black body with an orange-red tail. Males have distinct yellow facial hairs and a yellow band on the thorax with a black abdomen and a bright 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. It is very similar to the much rarer Red-shanked carder bee but the hairs on the pollen baskets of females of the latter species are red.
If you would like to take part in any of our bumblebee monitoring surveys, visit our survey pages here.
The following habitats are found across the Buff-tailed bumblebee distribution range. Find out more about these environments, what it takes to live there and what else inhabits them.
'Small Garden Humble-bee' (Sladen, 1912; Step, 1932) 'Garden bumblebee' (Benton, 2000, BBCT) taxonomy and nomenclature
Click play on the video below to watch a guide on how to identify the common species of bumblebee, produced by BBCT volunteer Cathy Clarke.
The Buff-tailed Bumblebee in Britain is a subspecies Bombus terrestris audax. On continental Europe and the Channel Islands however, there is a different subspecies Bombus terrestris dalmatinus which does not have a buff tail, it is easily confused with another bumblebee species the White-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lucorum.
Queens and workers with a pale band at the front of the thorax are rare and may occur particularly after inclement weather (Sladen, 1912).
Take a trip through the natural world with our themed collections of video clips from the natural history archive.
Every two years, the Royal Entomological Society organises the week, supported by a large number of partner organisations with interests in the science, natural history and conservation of insects.
Queen Buff-tailed Bumblebees can be seen flying in early spring to forage and find nest sites, workers then hatch in early summer and are visible foraging in flowers for pollen and nectar. Male Buff-tailed Bumblebees hatch in late summer and can be seen searching for young queens with which to mate. New queens fly in late summer locating hibernation sites.
The colour pattern of this species is particularly variable. Black hairs are fewest on individuals from northern Scotland, and more abundant on those from southern Scotland, England and Wales.
Generally the nests of B. terrestris have a deeper and longer tunnel that those of B. lucorum. Tunnels of 2 metres long have been recorded. A favourite nesting site of B. terrestris is under garden sheds. Successful nests can have as many as 350 workers.
Buff-tailed Bumblebees are widepread around mainland Britain, except in the far North.
The cuckoo species of B. lucorum is B. bohemicus, and the cuckoo species of B. terrestris is B. vestalis.
All bumblebee males patrol mating circuits laying down a pheromone to attract new queens. The pheromone is used to scent-mark prominent objects (tree trunks, rocks, posts, etc) on the circuit. The circuit is marked in the morning, and after rain. The scent of some species can be detected by some humans. Usually they patrol at species specific heights. Bombus terrestris and lucorum males patrol at tree-top height. However this depends on the habitat.
This species of bumblebee is named after the queen’s buff-coloured ‘tail’. It is a widespread species which visits many different types of flowers for pollen and nectar. They make nests underground.
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. The workers have a white tail with a subtle buff line separating the tail from the rest of the abdomen. Unlike many species, the Buff-tailed male’s facial hair is black, as opposed to yellow. Males have a buff-tinged tail.
Nests in the ground, usually using an empty mouse nest. In western Europe a 100 bees occupying one nest may be considered the minimum and bigger nests may consist of no less than 600 bees. The younger queens are the only ones to hibernate through the winter.
Buff-tailed Bumblebees live in most lowland areas of Britain, in rural and urban habitats.