Top tips for bee ID
If you are having trouble with identification, there are a few questions to ask which may help:
What colour is its tail?
Our common bumblebees have tails that are either white, red, buff or brown. Some colours may fade as the bee gets older, so ‘red’ tails may begin to appear buff or orange in late summer. Also, some species have a tail that is confined to the end of the abdomen, so it can be hard to see. This is particularly true for the Early bumblebee.
What other bands can you see?
Look at the number, colour and position of bands. For example, the bee on the left has two yellow bands: one on the thorax, and one on the abdomen. The hair on its head is black. It also has a very thin fringe of buff hairs between the black and white parts of the abdomen.
Is it a 'true' or a cuckoo bumblebee?
‘True’ bumblebee workers and queens collect pollen, so they always have a back leg that has a broad shiny surface, or has a ball of pollen stuck to it. This surface is called the ‘pollen basket’. Cuckoo bumblebees do not collect pollen at all, so this part of their leg is covered in thick dark hair, and is often narrow. To make matters more confusing, 'true bumblebee' male legs look similar to cuckoo legs, but they have what may be described as an ‘incomplete basket’, with a few hairs encroaching onto the surface.
Is it a male or a female?
There are several useful clues: Males of some species have yellow hair on their head and faces. If you are able to catch the bee and put it in a pot, the shape of the underside of the abdomen is useful (where the sting comes out from a female). The antennae of males are longer, thicker and tend to be curved. Female antennae are shorter, narrower and tend to be elbowed.
Behaviour can be useful too: because males do not have to collect pollen for the nest, they tend to sit lazily on flowers. They may also be observed flying along hedgerows searching for a mate. They do not feed during this time, so will land briefly on a surface, and then fly off again. They often patrol the same area for a while, so you may see the same bee repeating the circuit over and over again. In contrast, females tend to be much busier, flying quickly from flower to flower, and rarely wasting time by resting on flowers.
The time of year can also be helpful - males become common in late summer and autumn, whereas females are present throughout the whole lifecycle.
Click here to view the most common UK bumblebees.
“Few people realise just how important bumblebees are. They are charming little things and a pleasure to see, but they also do an essential job which many people take for granted. If bumblebees continue to decline then we face ecological turmoil. Join BBCT today and support their important work.”
Naturalist, Television presenter
and BBCT President