tree bumblebee collecting nectar and pollen

The different types of bumblebee

There are approximately 250 different species of bumblebees across the world with varying sizes, colours and patterns and they can be found in every country except Australia and Antarctica.

With so many different species of bumblebee in the genus Bombus, it’s often hard to tell which species you’re observing. We’ve detailed some of the most prolific species of bumblebees seen in gardens, meadows and wild areas all across the country.

In the UK bumblebees can be separated into three groupings dictated by the tail colour of the queens, and how rare they are.

These three groups are:

Let’s take a closer look at each of these groups and the bumblebees included:

White-tailed bumblebees

The White-tailed bumblebee, Bombus lucorum, is a species of bumblebee common across the United Kingdom and Europe. This species is composed of three similar subspecies that are nearly identical in both appearance and behaviour.

These three taxa are:

  • Bombus lucorum – White-tailed bumblebee
  • Bombus magnus – Northern white-tailed bumblebee
  • Bombus cryptarum – Cryptic bumblebee

Other than the Western honeybee, the White-tailed bumblebee is one of the most recognisable bee species across Europe and North America. It displays two yellow bands, one on its thorax and one halfway down its abdomen with a distinctive white-coloured tail to match its name.

Bumblebees included in this group:

  • White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) – The White-tailed bumblebee can be found throughout all of Europe and parts of Asia as well as North America where they live in Canada, Alaska, and northern regions of Mexico
  • Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) – The Buff-tailed bumblebee lives in open habitats, like meadows and gardens. Its nest is usually underground but may be found in trees or artificial structures such as bird houses.
  • Forest cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus sylvestris) – The Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee is a relatively small bee, typically measuring between 15 and 20mm. It is a medium-bodied bumblebee with an orange-brown head, black thorax and abdomen, white hair bands on the first four terga (abdominal segments) and a furry white tail.
  • Barbuts cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus barbutellus) – The Barbut’s cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus barbutellus) is an interloper in the nests of other bumblebee species, (parasitizing the raising of young) including the Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and probably also the Ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus). Like all cuckoo bees, it does not collect pollen to feed its offspring and accordingly neither sex has pollen baskets.
  • Gypsy cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus bohemicus) – A common and widespread cuckoo bumblebee, found throughout the north of England. Like all cuckoo species, they do not collect pollen and are devoid of pollen baskets or a worker caste. The Gypsy cuckoo bumblebee is a variable species, with different colour forms being seen throughout its range. It has darkened wings and always has a yellow collar on the thorax and a white tail with a small pale yellow patch on each side of the abdomen (near the tip), at the front of the tail.
  • Broken-belted bumblebee (Bombus soroeensis) – The broken belted bee is widespread but highly localised, found mainly in the north and west of the United Kingdom. It displays a yellow band at the front of its thorax with bright yellow colouring, and its white tail is often dispersed by small yellow hairs. Some males of the species can develop an orange suffusion at the front half of their tails.
  • Ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus) – This is one of the largest bumblebee species and is generally found in southern England but is becoming rarer due to habitat loss.
  • Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)Tree bumblebees have bright ginger thoraxes alongside black abdomens and a white tail.
  • Heath bumblebee (Bombus jonellus) – The Heath bumblebee has a small round face, only as long as it is wide, unlike the larger Garden bumblebee and Ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus). All members of the species have a yellow-black-yellow thorax, with the final thoracic band merging with a yellow band at the front of the abdomen. Males of the species display bright yellow facial hairs.

Red-tailed bumblebees

The Red-tailed bumblebee, Latin name (Bombus lapidarius) is a common species of social bumblebee found in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. It emerges in early spring and can be observed all the way through to Autumn (April to November)in gardens and wild spaces.

Red-tailed bumblebees can live in a range of habitats but are most commonly seen in areas including:

  • Hedgerows
  • Lowlands
  • Gardens
  • Meadows
  • Wild areas
  • Farmland
  • Heathland
  • Woodland areas

Workers and queens are characterised by their jet-black bodies and red hair covering up to half of the abdomen. Males can display yellow facial hair and yellow stripes located at either the front or the rear of the thorax (or both).

Bumblebees included in this group:

  • Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola)
  • Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)
  • Red-shanked bumblebee (Bombus ruderarius)
  • Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)
  • Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus rupestris)

Ginger and yellow bumblebees

Quite possibly the least known and least sighted types of bumblebee across the world these colourful bees are a stunning sight to behold. Identified by their predominant ginger/yellow colouring all of the bees here can be identified by either full-body colouring or a distinctively yellow/ginger tail.

Bumblebees included in this group:

  • Great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus)
  • Shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum)
  • Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)
  • Field cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus campestris)
  • Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis)
  • Moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum)
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