My Top Six Garden Bumblebees (Plus One!)

Forgive me blogging-friend for I have sinned. It has been 40 days since my last blog. I seek forgiveness by giving you my “Top Six Bumbles” and promise to do many, many hours of penance in front of my computer in the coming months.

Bombus Terrestris Buff Tailed Bumblebee-1

Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) photographed June 2009

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I haven’t blogged; too busy looking at the wildlife to blog about it!

Anyway to make up for it (and because my friend Peter at Bishopthorpe Nature did a great blog post recently about Cuckoo Bumbles which has spurred me into action) here are my Top Six Bumbles to look out for in and around your own garden (all of them are common species and all but one was photographed this June):

In no particular order…

No 6 – The Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

Queens, workers & males all have one yellow stripe on the thorax and one on the abdomen (which is preceded by a black band) and an orange tail. The male has very distinctive yellow hairs on it’s face.ย  Small species (especially the workers). It’s face is as long as it is wide, and it has a short tongue. Colours can be very variable with some workers almost all black and some males with a second band of yellow on the thorax.

Easy to confuse with Bombus lapidarius. Resemblance to Bombus monticola.

Often found in gardens (great pollinators of soft-fruit flowers), this bumble can have two generations in the South. Queens are often one of the earliest to be seen in Spring. Males often produced in May.

Bombus pratorum male Early Bumblebee

Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) male photographed June 2009

No 5 – the Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Queens, workers and males are practically all pale ginger-brown colour, with a few patches of black hairs on the abdomen (sometimes there are a lot of these). There are distinct black hairs in with the ginger-brown ones on the thorax. Male has ginger-brown facial hairs. Medium sized. Abdomen is almost round (but seems more ovoid in males). Face longer than wide, long tongue. Colours don’t tend to vary too much but they do fade to an almost grey-brown colour.

Easy to confuse with Bombus humilis and Bombus muscorum.

Another regular garden visitor. Queens searching for suitable nesting sites are often the first carder-bees to be seen (March in the South).

Bombus Pascuorum Common Carder Bee

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum) photographed June 2009

No 4 – the White Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)

Queens, workers and some males have a single yellow band at the front of the thorax and one on the abdomen (which is preceded by a black band). White tail. Males have yellow facial hair (which is a good clear yellow – not muddy). Large, robust species – although workers are much smaller. Face as long as wide, tongue very short. There is some variation. Some males have an additional yellow band at the rear of the thorax and no black band at the beginning of the abdomen.

Workers are hard to distinguish from Bombus terrestris, although queens & males should be easy to ID.

Regularly seen in gardens. Nest searching queens sometimes seen in February in South (and may be starting to nest in Autumn in some mild areas).

Bombus lucorum White Tailed Bumblebee male-1

White Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) male photographed June 2009

No. 3 – the Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Queens, workers and males have a single yellow stripe on front of thorax, one on the abdomen (preceded by a black band). Tail is a dirty-white to buff colour, occasionally orange-red. Facial hair on male is black. Very large, robust species – workers are much smaller. Face as long as wide, tongue very short. Very little variation in colour in the UK-native population.

Workers easy to mix up with Bombus lucorum – although males & queens should be easy to ID.

A regular garden species. Not found in the far north & scarse in Scotland (although it’s moving north!). Nest-searching queens seen in February in the South (and sometimes in the winter).

Buff tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris-1

Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) photographed June 2009

No 2 – The Red Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

Queens and workers have black head, thorax and abdomen with orange-red tail (less than 50% of total length of abdomen). Abdomen is longer than wide. Males have yellow facial hair, yellow bands on thorax, abdomen is black and orange-red tail. A large robust species – although workers are much smaller. Face as long as wide, tongue mid-length. The yellow colouring in the males varies – some have very little yellow banding. Very occasionally females have faint yellow banding.

Can be mistaken for Bombus ruderarius, Bombus lapidarius, Bombus rupestris – but if you look closely and compare you should be able to find differences.

Widespread and found in many habitats. Spreading into north-east Scotland.

Bombus lapidarius - Red Tailed Bumblebee male-2

Red Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) male photographed June 2009

No 1 – The Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum)

Queens, workers and males have two yellow bands on the thorax and one at the base of the abdomen. Tail is white. Males have black facial hair. A large, robust species – although early workers may be much smaller. Face is very much longer than wide, tongue is very long (which it unfolds as it approaches a flower to drink nectar). Some individuals can be very dark (almost black), but the tail usually remains white.

Similar to Bombus ruderatus (rare) and Bombus jonellus.

Widespread species found in gardens. However, it may not be frequent in some areas.

Bombus hortorum - Garden bumblebee 25-09-08

Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) photographed Sept 08

and the extra one? Well that’s a Cuckoo…. what’s a cuckoo? well it takes over the nest of another bumblebee – dirty rotter!

The Vestal Bumblebee (Bombus vestalis)

This species takes over the nest of the Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris).

Females & males have one dark-yellow stripe on the thorax, none on the abdomen. Tail is white, with clear dark-yellow side patches at the junction with the black. Wings usually dark-tinged. Male has black facial hairs. No workers. Large robust species. Face as long as wide. Tongue short.ย  This species is very variable in colour (especially males). Sometimes additional faint yellow band at base of abdomen.

Similar to Bombus bohemicus, but the yellow is lighter and side patches smaller in B. bohemicus.

Widespread. Found in many gardens in England & Wales. In South it’s the most commonly found cuckoo bee. Not known in Ireland and only recently recorded in Scotland. Host-searching females may be out in late March. New females & males may be seen resting on flowers from June to August.

Vestal Cuckoo Bee Bombus vestalis 27-06-2009 13-27-38 27-06-2009 13-27-38

Vestal Bumblebee (Bombus vestalis) photographed June 2009

Extra Information

Just in case you think I’ve turned into some kind of “bee guru” (I haven’t!), all the information in this post came from the invaluable little book “Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain & Ireland” by Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner (which doesn’t seem to be on Amazon at the moment, but is worth picking up if you can).

Another great source of information is BWARS and the Natural History Museum Bumblebee Reference Guide.

Bumblebees (and bees in general) are great insects to watch (and learn about).ย  I’ll try to do a general “bee” post later in the year.

I hope you find this post useful and have fun looking for (and photographing) your local Bumbles – I’d love to hear about any that you find!

29 thoughts on “My Top Six Garden Bumblebees (Plus One!)

  1. Nice one Jane, and thanks for the publicity! I was wondering when we would get your next post!
    Your picture of Bombus hortorum looks remarkably like Bombus hypnorum (it could just be the angle of the photo), which is a new invading species; if it is you should let BWARS know about it as they are charting its spread.

    • I know. I’ve been really struggling to write my posts lately. Just too much wildlife to watch…

      Thanks for your note about B. hortorum. I will let Stuart at BWARS have a look at the picture (which was taken last September).

      Really enjoying your blog!


  2. What a gorgeous and helpful post! We’ve had loads of the garden bumble bees in our garden in Tottenham right from early spring, they liked the pulminaria and broad beans and now they are going nuts for the comfrey and poppies. There really have been huge numbers of those and the bombus lucorum as well.Thanks for putting in the very detailed descriptions as well as the lovely pics ๐Ÿ™‚

    • To start with I was just going to do a post about the 6 most common garden bees – just showing pictures – but it didn’t seem enough somehow. Glad it was helpful. At the moment our Bumbles are going mad for a Hebe which is in full flower… about 20 or so on it all the time.

  3. I agree you’ve got Bombus hypnorum in your garden! You must have hortorum too, scruffy and quite picky regarding flowers as its tongue is very long, you might see it in Foxgloves (only pascuorum visits these) and Phlomis (Jerusalem sage) and Honeysuckle. This would mean you have at least 8! Great photos and good gallery for garden bumbles

    • Thanks Africa – although the man from BWARS (see Stuarts comment below), thinks it’s more likely to be B. hortorum… I’m not arguing with the expert… ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I’m sorry to criticize this article, but I believe that some of those bumblebees are misidentified. Said hortorum may be actually hypnorum, the photo is oversaturated. And the cuckoo bumblebee is Psithyrus, not Bombus.
    Anyway, nice work.

  5. Well done, Jane. Bumblebees don’t seem to like being photographed (just as you get the shot lined up they’re off to the next flower…) but you’ve got some great shots here. I’m not much at identifying bees, but with help from friends on Flick I think I’ve found Early, Common Carder, White-tailed and Red-tailed in my garden – I’ll post some photos when I get a chance.

    • That’s a good selection bramblejungle! I’ve been concentrating on solitary bees this year… hopefully I can get as many solitary ones as bumbles.

  6. Pingback: Bumblebees « Hagbourne Wildlife

  7. Lovely pics Jane.

    I am not sure at all about the “hypnorum”. The angle of the photograph makes it very difficult to be confident with this pic. However, the colour seems rather yellowish (perhaps saturated), and I reckon there COULD well be an inter-alar band (ie across the centre of the thorax) so I wouldn’t be surprised if this IS hortorum as you originally suggested. B. hypnorum is very, very rarely recorded in Dorset (only 1 record that i know of)

    wrt Zdenek’s post and the Bombus/Psithyrus generic names: All bumblebees are now regarded as being in the genus Bombus, with Psithyrus being relegated to sub-generic level. This revision is generally accepted in the bombological world after being put forward by Paul Williams in 1991

    • Hi Nick. Thanks for your comment, but I must admit I’m going with Stuart above (who is an expert from BWARS and lectures around the world on the subject of bees). I’m not going to go against the bee-guru’s view! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Dear Jane,

    Is it allowed to use some of these pictures for educational reasons. Making a powerpointpresentation on the differences between bumble bee, bee, whasp,…?

    Thanks for your reply,

  9. Jane,
    Our wildlife group has a public meeting on 11th March on Bumble bees and to promote the talk I would like to link to this post on my Blog and also on our group page of the Somerset Wildlife Trust web site.
    I cant think of a better way of highlighting this great insect than to encourage people to visit your site.
    Best wishes, David

    • David

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      Of course you can link to my blog post on Bumblebees. Very happy for anyone to look at it. Some of my ID’s have been questioned, so it would be interesting to hear other peoples views. I’m always up for some intelligent debate! I can’t wait until the bees make an appearance again, although a friend saw a B. terrestris in her garden just the other day.

      Another great site to link to for bees is of course BWARS site at who are actually mapping winter bumblebees for the second year running. So if any of your contacts see any, they can send their records to Stuart at BWARS (info is on the BWARS site).

      As you can probably tell from my blog I rather like bees of all sorts, and I’ve also set up a set of pictures that I’ve taken of bees and wasps in my garden (and abroad) at:

      Thank you again for your interest. Jane

  10. Great pictures Jane.

    A couple of comments:
    * Bee No. 1 definitely looks like B.Hypnorum to me.
    * Distribution of B.Terrestris. It appears to be very common in southern and central Scotland, getting rarer towards the north, in much the same way as carrion crows tend to give way to hooded crows in the highlands – although I don’t think there is a connection!

  11. Great pictures Jane.

    A couple of comments:
    * Bee No. 1 definitely looks like B.Hypnorum to me.
    * Distribution of B.Terrestris. It appears to be very common in southern and central Scotland, getting rarer towards the north, in much the same way as carrion crows tend to give way to hooded crows in the highlands – although I don’t think there is a connection!

  12. Thanks for the info Mal – that’s really interesting. Had to laugh with your reference to hooded crows/bees. Would be really funny if there was a connection! Cheers. Jane

  13. Great bee photos, I particularly like the pin-sharp Common Carder ‘with attitude’. Looking at the comments, I’m very glad to find that I’m not the only person who posts wildlife photos – for example, some kind of Plover – only to learn that it’s a Ruddy Turnstone (as you might say…).

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