How to identify the Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus)

The last naturally occurring Short-haired bumblebee (B. subterraneus) in the UK was found in Dungeness, Kent in 1988. In 2000 this species was officially declared extinct in the UK, having once been widespread throughout the South of England. Thankfully in 2009 work started to reintroduce this species back to the UK and has been ongoing ever since.

You can read about the project's progress here.

One of the most important aspects in reintroducing a species is being able to tell if it has become established in the wild, so we have developed this detailed identification guide to help people know whether or not they have spotted a Short-haired bumblebee.

Image 1 (left): Facial shot, Mike Edwards; Image 2 (middle): Full body shot, Alan Kenworthy; Image 3 (right): Thoracic shot, Nikki Gammans.

The females (queens and workers) of this species are black with two yellow bands on the thorax, two or three yellow bands on the abdomen and a white tail (images 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7). The second thoracic band is always narrower than the first and often the first band will have a black ‘notch’ breaking the yellow band (images 2, 3 and 4). This is the only true bumblebee species (as opposed to cuckoo) in the UK to have yellow hairs next to the white tail (images 6 and 7). There is also a melanistic version of this species in which the body is black but has a chocolate brown tail (image 8). Please note all images from 1-10 are queens.

Image 4 (left): Facial and black notch shot, John Oates; Image 5 (middle): Full body shot, RSPB images; Image 6 (right): Abdominal shot, RSPB images.

The males are very different in their appearance to the females. They are completely yellow apart from a band of dark hairs between the wing bases (images 11 and 12).

Species with which the Short-haired bumblebee could be confused are the females of the Ruderal bumblebee (B. ruderatus) and the Garden bumblebee (B. hortorum). To determine the Short-haired bumblebee from the Ruderal bumblebee, look at the second yellow band of the thorax, which is narrower than the first (images 2 and 3) as opposed to the Ruderal bumblebee on which the thoraxic bands are the same width. To determine the Short-haired bumblebee from the Garden bumblebee, look at the hair on the middle of the thorax, this is much shorter in the Short-haired bumblebee and appears to be bald. Also the abdomen plates are visible due to lack of hair (images 2-6). Both the Ruderal bumblebee and the Garden bumblebee have long faces and the distance from the base of the eye to the bottom of the mandibles (called the malar space) is again the same length. In comparison, the distance between the base of the eye and mandibles in the Short-haired bumblebee is much shorter (images 1, 9 and 10).

Image 7 (left): Full body shot, Nikki Gammans; Image 8 (middle): Melanistic version, Nikki Gammans; Image 9 (right): Comparison facial shot (B. subterraneus left and B. ruderatus right), Nikki Gammans.

Male Short-haired bumblebees could potentially be confused with the Field cuckoo bumblebee (B. campestris). However Field cuckoos also have black hairs on second and third abdominal plates or sections. The sister species of the Short-haired bumblebee, the Great yellow (B. distinguendus) may also be confused but this species is now only found in the very North of Scotland.

Image 10 (left): Side facial shot, Mike Edwards; Image 11 (middle): Male body shot, Nikki Gammans; Image 12 (right): Male body side shot, Nikki Gammans.

For a positive identification of a Short-haired bumblebee in the field - it is important to take photographs. The key parts to photograph are close ups of the face (from the front and the side, like images 1 and 10) and a clear view of the thorax and abdomen (from the top and the side if possible).

If you believe you have seen a Short-haired bumblebee (B. subterraneus) please contact . Please take as many photographs as possible, note the caste (whether it's a queen, male or worker), along with the flower species if you can, and keep a grid reference. Please do not collect any specimens. The bee is most likely to be spotted at present in Kent and East Sussex.

“Bumblebees are one of the most endearing insect visitors to any garden. Their furry, colourful bodies and clumsy flight always raise a smile, but they also do an essential job. Without their pollination services many flowers would produce no seeds, and fruit and vegetable yields would suffer.”

Toby Buckland
TV gardener

Toby Buckland
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