bumblebee on white flowers

How to identify bumblebees

Pause, take some time out, and find out how to spot a few of the 26 species of bumblebee that exist in the UK.
photo of Dave Goulson
By Dave Goulson    |      Published:  25 Apr 2018    |      4 minute read

Now is a great time of year to pay attention to our bumblebees – those small but vitally important creatures that live all around us.

With bees in decline, it's important we take the opportunity to learn more about these special pollinators.

At this time of year the queen bumblebees have just come out of hibernation – huge, furry zeppelins of the insect world. If you have bee-friendly flowers in your garden you will see them hungrily feeding, for they haven’t had a meal for seven months.

Once they are replete, you’ll see them flying low to the ground – they are hoping to find a hole that leads down to a cosy abandoned mouse nest, their favourite place to build their own nest. Bumblebees are wild creatures, cousins of the smaller, more drab honeybees that we keep in hives.

Take a moment to watch them and you will soon spot different types of bumblebees – we have 26 species in the UK, and you can easily see 7 different ones in any garden or park. Learn these 7 and you can amaze and amuse (or annoy) your friends by pointing out the different types.

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Buff-tailed bumblebee © Amelia Collins
Buff-tailed bumblebee
Credit: © Amelia Collins

1. Most common is the buff-tailed bumblebee, one of the biggest, with 2 golden yellow stripes and a brownish tail.

White-tailed bumblebee
White-tailed bumblebee
Credit: © Getty

2. The white-tailed bumblebee is quite similar but as the name suggests, the tail is white, and the yellow stripes a paler, more lemony yellow. Once you have those 2 sorted it gets easier.

Garden bumblebee
Garden bumblebee
Credit: © Steven Falk

3. Look out for the garden bumblebee, like the white-tailed but with 3 yellow stripes and an enormously long tongue, half the length of its own body, that it uses to suck nectar from deep flowers that other bumblebees cannot reach.

Red-tailed bumblebee
Red-tailed bumblebee
Credit: Thinkstock

4. The red-tailed bumblebee is a piece of cake – velvety black with a bright red bottom.

Common carder bumblebee
Common carder bumblebee
Credit: © David Podmore

5. Then there is the common carder bumblebee – a drab gingery brown all over.

Early bumblebee
Early bumblebee
Credit: © Sharon Lashley

6. The early bumblebee is a sweet little bumblebee, smaller than the others, with 2 yellow stripes and a rusty red bottom.

Tree bumblebee
Tree bumblebee
Credit: © Steven Falk

7. Finally, the tree bumblebee, chestnut brown at the front, black in the middle, with a white bottom. Unlike the others, it likes to nest in holes in trees, hence the name.

Take your time. There is no rush. The bees will be with us now until the end of summer. Move slowly and you can get very close to them – they are very docile and will never sting so long as you don’t grab them in your hand.

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He is author of A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, both published by Vintage. Read Prof Goulson's own list of best flowers for bees.

A version of this article was first published by the The Big Issue.

To learn more about the bees and other pollinators in your garden, and take part in national surveys, check out the Buzz Club.

Are the wildlife facts you thought you knew true?