Feel the buzz – identifying our bumblebees

Bumblebees are a familiar sight, but can you tell the different species apart? Here is the Wildlife Trust’s guide to the most common bumblebees in the UK.

Bumblebees are one of the most familiar and endearing garden insects. Hearing their distinctive buzz in the air and spotting them dance from flower to flower epitomises a perfect summer’s day. They are also vitally important for pollinating hundreds of plant species, including many crops that provide our food.

Of the 27 species of bumblebee recognised to inhabit the UK, three are now extinct and many have suffered considerable declines in distribution. Our ID tips below should give you a helping hand to identify five of the most common you might see in your garden.

White-tailed bumblebee

The white-tailed bumblebee is a very common bumblebee that emerges early in the spring and can be seen right through to the autumn. It can be found in gardens, farmland, woodland edges, hedgerows and heathland: anywhere there are flowers to feed on. As the name suggests, it has a white tail as well as a yellow band on the thorax and on the abdomen. The markings are similar to other species, such as the buff-tailed bumblebee, so look for their bright white tail.

Tree bumblebee

The tree bumblebee is a relatively new arrival to the UK. First recorded here in 2001, it is slowly spreading north throughout the country. It nests in cavities such as bird nest holes in trees, bird boxes and roof spaces. The tree bumblebee visits a wide range of flowers, particularly those of soft fruits such as raspberries and bramble, and shrubs. Tree bumblebees have a distinctive appearance with brown/orange hairs on the thorax, a black abdomen and white tail.

Buff-tailed bumblebee

As the name suggests, this bumblebee is named after the queen’s buff-coloured ‘tail’. This common species is attracted to many types of flowers, though its short tongue means it dislikes deeper flowers. The queen, male and workers all have a yellow collar near the head and another on the abdomen. The queen and the males have an off-white/buff colour ‘tail’ while the workers have a white ‘tail’ with a faint buff line separating the tail from the rest of the abdomen.

Red-tailed bumblebee

Red-tailed bumblebees emerge in early spring and feed on flowers right through to the autumn. The female red-tailed bumblebee is a very large black bumblebee with a big red ‘tail’ and pollen baskets on its hind legs that are fringed with black hairs.

Common carder bee

Common carder bees are medium-sized with a long tongue. They emerge in early spring and can be seen feeding on flowers right through to November. The workers visit a variety of flowers, especially legumes, thistles, knapweeds, brambles and comfreys. They nest in cavities, such as old mouse runs, in bird nests or in moss mats in lawns. They are a social insect and their nests may contain up to 200 workers. The common carder bee is almost entirely brown and orange, sometimes displaying darker bands on the abdomen.

Find out more about helping your local bumblebees at www.hiwwt.org.uk.

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