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Identifying bumblebees

In recent years, bumblebees have suffered massive declines, leaving two of the UK's 27 native species extinct. Loss of habitat is to blame, with wild areas of farmland sacrificed for bigger yields. Bumblebees now have fewer nesting opportunities and flowers to feed from.

Grow a range of flowering plants all year - especially from March to November when bees are most active - to provide them with essential sources of nectar and pollen. Native wildflowers, such as foxgloves, meadow cranesbill and teasel, are best. Gardeners can also encourage bumblebees to nest by leaving a patch of long grass or emptying compost bins less frequently.

Identifying bumblebees

There are six bumblebees likely to visit gardens, all varying in colour, size and tongue length. Each species favours different nest locations, such as below ground, trees or long grass.

Find out how to identify the six species of bumblebee likely to visit gardens, by using our easy-to-follow guide.

Buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris

Buff-tailed bumblebee, <i>Bombus terrestris</i>, photo taken by Penny Frith, courtesy of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Similar to the white-tailed bumblebee, but with mustard-yellow bands on the head and thorax. Queens (pictured) can be very large. Workers have a white tail with a faint buff-coloured margin. They're more common in the south of England than the north.

White-tailed bumblebee, Bombus lucorum

White-tailed bumblebee, <i>Bombus lucorum</i>, photo courtesy of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Similar to the buff-tailed bumblebee, but with lemon yellow bands and a white tail. Males, which emerge from June, also have yellow facial hairs. This species visits a wide range of flowers and is more common in the north of England and Scotland.

Garden bumblebee, Bombus hortorum

Garden bumblebee, <i>Bombus hortorum</i>, photo taken by Kate Bradbury.

This species has two yellow bands on the head and one on the thorax. Its tongue is long, so visits flowers with long corollas, such as foxgloves and red clover. Don't confuse it with the white-tailed bumblebee, which only has one band on its head.

Red-tailed bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius

Red-tailed bumblebee, <i>Bombus lapidarius</i>, picture courtesy of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Queens (pictured) and workers are very distinctive, with an all-black body and red tail. Males, which emerge from June, have a bright yellow face and one yellow stripe on the body. This species can often be found on yellow flowers, such as bird's foot trefoil.

Common carder bumblebee, Bombus pascuorum

Common carder bumblebee, <i>Bombus pascuorum</i>, picture courtesy of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Generally a small species, with workers varying in size considerably. Almost entirely gingery-brown, with no bands, although some workers (pictured) have more black colouring on the body. They feed from a wide range of flowers, including white dead nettle.

Early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum

Early bumblebee, <i>Bombus pratorum</i>, picture courtesy of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

This species has one yellow band on the head and a bright orange tail. It sometimes has a faint yellow band on the body. It visits a wide range of flowers, but is often found visiting flowers of soft fruit, such as blackberries and raspberries.

Discuss this plant feature

Talkback: Identifying bumblebees
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kparry 24/11/2011 at 15:27

Love to see bees in my garden, they are now busy getting my broadbeans polenated, should have a bumper crop.

colbert2378 24/11/2011 at 15:27

Bumblebees are lovely but not the brightest on the block. Why does it take me so long to get one out of my greenhouse when the door is wide open?

Boolily 24/11/2011 at 15:27

Last year I had many black, grey and white miner bees in my vegetable plot. I had never seen them before and was fascinated.

Mark1966 24/11/2011 at 15:27

Last Year i drilled a whole load of 15mm & 20mm holes in two 1 meter lenghs of timber fence post. Even though they were pressure treated i had approximatley twenty bees in each hotel. The slowly emerging Bees look fine. photos can be suplied on request.
Mark Neal

samuelcat 24/11/2011 at 15:27

We have a Laburnum (hope I spelt that right) in full flower at the moment. We call it our humming tree because there are that many bees in it.Love them.

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