Bumblebees: the ‘Big 8’
Like many of us who love coastal birds, the Bird Aware Solent team are passionate about other animals too.
Thomas, our monitoring expert, has a particular fascination with bees. Here he shares his tips for identifying the ‘Big 8’ of bumblebee species.
A new challenge for bird lovers
Everybody loves a coastal walk, but sometimes a bitterly cold sea breeze or a busy weekend may leave you scratching your head thinking of other options. In these cases, inland sites can make brilliant alternatives, and have the added benefit of giving our birds a well deserved break from all the hustle and bustle.
If you usually limit yourself to walking along the coast, you may find you run into species with which you’re not as familiar on a route further inland. This can provide a fun challenge to avid bird watchers keen to expand their identification skills into other areas.
For instance, did you know that there are over 200 bee species to be seen in the UK? The next time you are on a walk, see if you can spot as many of our eight most common bumblebee species, the ‘Big 8’, as possible. Most of the bumblebees you are likely to come across will belong to one of these eight species.
Where to start?
If you spot a bumblebee on your walk, first look for the colour of its ‘tail’, which in this case refers to the tip of the abdomen or, in other words, the bottom. Then, make note of any banding you can see, either on its upper body, the thorax, or on its lower body, the abdomen.
Bumblebees with white tails
First up are the bumblebees with white tails which include our most recognisable bumblebees. The buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees look very similar and may be what you imagine when you picture a bumblebee. They have two yellow bands, one on the thorax and one on the abdomen.
Save for the buff-tailed queens, which sport a snazzy reddish, cream coloured tail, don’t worry about telling them apart, as this is usually only done through DNA testing!
Buff-tailed bumblebee: two yellow bands, one on the thorax and one on the abdomen.
White-tailed bumblebee: also two yellow bands, one on the thorax and one on the abdomen.
Look for an additional yellow band at the bottom of the thorax to identify the garden bumblebee and the smaller, somewhat less common, heath bumblebee, who make our second pair.
Garden bumblebee: an additional yellow band at the bottom of the thorax
Heath bumblebee: an additional yellow band at the bottom of the thorax, smaller, somewhat less common
The last of the common bumblebees with white tails is the tree bumblebee, which is easily recognisable by its completely ginger-brown thorax and un-banded black abdomen, save for its white tail. They are a recent arrival in the UK but are already one of the most common and widespread species.
A queen tree bumblebee: completely ginger-brown thorax and un-banded black abdomen, save for its white tail
Bumblebees with red tails
If your bumblebee has a red tail, it is likely either an early bumblebee or a red-tailed bumblebee. The early bumblebee displays a similar banding pattern to the buff and white-tailed bumblebees, with the obvious difference being its gingery red tail.
Red-tailed bumblebees, however, are usually black all over except for their bright red tail. Watch out for male red-tailed bumblebees however, as they do exhibit some yellow banding as well.
Early bumblebee: similar banding to the buff and white-tailed bumblebees but with gingery red tail
Red-tailed bumblebee: black all over except for bright red tail
Bumblebees with ginger tails
Finally, the common carder bee is possibly the easiest to identify as it is simply ginger all over! Other than old, worn individuals resembling tree bumblebees, these ones are difficult to miss.
Common carder bumblebee: ginger all over
Once you’ve mastered these common bumblebee species you may find yourself wondering where to go next, but fear not! The world of bee identification has much more to offer, from cuckoo bees to solitary bees, and let’s not get tricked by bumblebee mimics like hoverflies and bee-flies.