Bumblebees

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Worker of buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Bumblebees can be a suitable subject for school exercises. We provide an on-wiki key here that can be printed as well as used interactively. Wiki keys can be easily copied to a different wiki page and modified for school projects. This key is based on the bumblebee key by Paul Williams from the NHM in London, UK. On that side much additional information about the species, their distribution and biology can be found. The re-cast into the present format here is authorized by Paul Williams.

The motivation to recast the existing English-language key here is to simplify its adaptation to other regions and languages, so it can be used in a variety of Key to Nature projects.

Working Plan:

  1. Check the copy of the British key to the current environment for correctness
  2. Modify it for Central Europe / Netherlands / Germany / Austria regions
  3. Translate it to German and Dutch
  4. Add further regions where possible and translate.

General note: The key below is not already cut down into one or few couplets per web page. We currently develop a tool that will make such a key "playable" in a couplet-by-couplet mode. Thus, the key rendering below should be evaluated as a long-term archive as well as printing format, not as a user interface. Suggestions how to improve the key display are most welcome!


Introduction

This is a simple key to British bumblebees. It is intended for people with no specialist knowledge of bumblebees but who do have a bee or pictures of a bee to compare it with the key.

Make sure that your specimen is indeed a bumblebee: Some flies, moths, or beetles look deceivingly like bumblebees (they "mimic" a bumblebee). Unlike these other insects, bumblebees have: (1) clear or slightly cloudy membranous wings without scales; (2) two wings on each side that, although usually hooked together can be separated (stroke the wing with a pencil tip to see if they will unhook); and (3) long stout antennae with an 'elbow' after the first long segment near their base.

While this key usually works for the common species of Britain, it does not include morphological characters yet and will at the moment fail to separate species with similar colour patterns. These are largely local and rare species. Some notes on these are included, but to be sure of identifying them correctly, you will need to use one of the more technical keys that may require using a microscope (e.g. Prys-Jones & Corbet, 1987, 1991; Benton, 2006).

Some bees may not be identifiable for other reasons:

  • Bees that are wet or dirty, or have had their hair rubbed off.
  • Old bees that have spent a long time in the sun may fade (e.g. from red to yellow, or from yellow to nearly white) and so will not match the patterns of the fresh specimens shown here.
  • Colour patterns are also very variable, so they may not match the examples exactly (most other keys show less of the variation).
  • Occasionally, bees are found that have very odd colour patterns, which are not shown here. They may either be mutants (e.g. with one or more colours completely missing), or may have been damaged during development (e.g. chilling often causes greying or additional pale bands to be added to the pattern).
Color pattern schema with color guide (showing Bombus terrestris)

How to use this colour key

You will need to compare your bee with the colour patterns shown in the key. Be careful if you handle living bumblebees: queen and worker bumblebees can sting!

The colours shown are the colours of the hair, not of the body surface (which is black or brown). The colours of the hair are described as being black or pale, so 'pale' includes white, grey, yellow, orange, red, and brown. In the colour-pattern diagrams, the colour pattern is simplified by artificially dividing the body up into rectangular areas and showing just the predominant colour for each.

This page currently contains two keys: a very brief overview of the six most frequently encountered species ("Big Six") and a more comprehensive key to a selection British species as far as they are identifiable based on color patterns.

Glossary of terms

  • Thorax (= "breast"): The part of the insect where the legs are attached, between head and tail.
  • Tail informal term to refer to pale hair at the end of the insect (note that this is not the whole abdomen or metasoma posterior to the waist).


"Big Six" - the most frequent bumblebee species (Britain)

BumblebeeID – find British species by colour pattern: Quick Guide to the "Big Six" species — Paul Williams
An overview over the species and colour patterns most frequently encountered in Britain. Please send comments and suggestions to Paul Williams.
(Geographic scope not specified) — Collaboration: open — Status: PRESENTLY WORK UNDER REVISION, NOT USABLE YET Note: all species links (red) are not yet created. — Contributors: G. Hagedorn (formatting and minor adaptations)
Compare the typical colour patterns (female/male) for each species:
  
Queen/worker
Male
  
Queen/worker
Male
  
Queen/Worker
Male
  
Queen, common form
Queen/worker, common form
  
Queen/worker
Male
  
Queen/worker
Male
a: Thorax orange brown
tail orange brown
b: Female unbanded
tail deep red
male with yellow bands
c: 1-2 yellow bands
tail orange
d: Two golden yellow bands
tail white,
buff at least at base
e: Two lemon yellow bands
tail pure white
male 2-3 yellow bands
f: Three yellow bands
tail pure white
Bombus pascuorumBombus lapidariusBombus pratorumBombus terrestrisBombus lucorumBombus hortorum


Comprehensive key to British bumblebee species by colour pattern

Instructions: by clicking on the number behind a choice the browser will jump to the corresponding number in the first column. A software to automate the navigation and focussing on one decision at a time, is currently being developed.

BumblebeeID – find British species by colour pattern — Paul Williams
The colour pattern of the body hair can be used to identify bumblebee species. This easy to use key is often sufficient to identify the common species and some of the rarer species. Please send comments and suggestions to Paul Williams.
(Geographic scope not specified) — Collaboration: open — Status: PRESENTLY WORK IN PROGRESS, NOT USABLE YET Note: all species links (red) are not yet created. — Contributors: G. Hagedorn (formatting and minor adaptations)
1
  
Tail yellow-white
  
Tail orange-red or orange-brown
  
Tail black
a: Tail yellow-whiteb: Tail orange, red, or brownc: Tail black
  2    9    14  
Tail yellow-white
2
  
Orange-brown thorax, white tail
  
No bands, white tail
  
One yellow band
One yellow band
  
Two yellow bands and white tail)
Two yellow bands and white tail)
  
Three yellow bands and white tail
  
mostly yellow
a: Having orange-red thoraxb: Without pale bandsc: Having 1 yellow bandd: Having 2 yellow bandse: Having 3 yellow bandsf: Tail mostly yellow
  3    4    5    6    7    8  
Tail yellow-white, thorax orange-red
3
  
Queen/worker, northern Britain form
Male, northern Britain form
Queen/worker, northern Britain form
Male, northern Britain form
  
Queen/worker, sourthern
Male, southern Britain
Queen/worker, rare dark form
  
Queen/worker, mainland form
Male, mainland form
Queen/worker, North + West island form
Male, North + West island form
  
Queen/worker, southern Britain
Male, southern Britain
  
Female, northern Britain form
a: Widespread species: B. pascuorum, northern Britain formb: Local species: B. humilis, southern Britain formc: Local speciesd: Local species, tail being mostly blacke: Local form in the north of the Britain; the tail being half black and half yellow-black-yellow striped
Bombus pascuorumBombus humilisBombus muscorumBombus hypnorumBombus campestris
Tail yellow-white, without pale bands
4
  
Female, dark form
Male, dark form
  
Queen/worker, rare dark mainland form, predominantly North + West
a: Widespread speciesb: Local species: B. jonellus, rare dark mainland form, predominantly North + West
Bombus campestrisBombus jonellus
Tail yellow-white, with one yellow band
5
  
Queen, dark form
  
Female
Male
Male
  
Female
  
Female
Male
Male
  
Queen/worker, extinct southern Britain
Worker, extinct southern Britain
a: Widespread species: B. terrestris, queen (dark form)b: Widespread speciesc: Widespread speciesd: Widespread speciese: Extremely rare: B. subterraneus, extinct southern Britain form
Bombus terrestrisBombus vestalisBombus bohemicusBombus sylvestrisBombus subterraneus
Tail yellow-white, with two yellow bands
6a
Queen, common form
Queen/worker, common form
Worker, common form
Male, common form
6b
Widespread species    White tailed bumblebee
  Bombus lucorum
Queen/worker, common form
Male, common form
Queen/worker, North + West upland form
Male, North + West upland form
6c
Widespread species    Barbut's Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus barbutellus
Female
Female
Male
6d
Widespread species    Four-coloured Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus sylvestris
Female
Male
6e
Widespread species: B. campestris (common form)    Field Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus campestris
Female, common form
6f
Local species: B. soroeensis, predominantly North + West Britain    Broken-belted Humble-bee,  Ilfracombe Humble-bee
  Bombus soroeensis
Worker, predominantly North + West
Worker, predominantly North + West
Queen/worker, predominantly North + West
Male, predominantly North + West
6g
Local species: B. ruderatus, southern Britain form    Large garden bumblebee
  Bombus ruderatus
Queen, southern Britain
6h
Local species: B. jonellus, rare dark mainland form, predominantly North + West    Heath humble-bee,  Small heath bumblebee
  Bombus jonellus
Queen/worker, rare dark mainland form, predominantly North + West
6i
Extremely rare: B. subterraneus, extinct southern Britain form    Short-haired bumble-bee
  Bombus subterraneus
Queen/worker, extinct southern Britain
Tail yellow-white, with three yellow bands
7a
Widespread species    Garden bumblebee
  Bombus hortorum
Queen/worker
Queen/worker
Male
Male
7b
Widespread species    White tailed bumblebee
  Bombus lucorum
Male
7c
Widespread species    Vestal Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus vestalis
Male
7d
Widespread species    Gipsy Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus bohemicus
Male
7e
Widespread species    Barbut's Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus barbutellus
Female
Male
7f
Widespread species    Field Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus campestris
Male
7g
Local species: B. jonellus, mainland form, predominantly North + West    Heath humble-bee,  Small heath bumblebee
  Bombus jonellus
Queen/worker, mainland form, predominantly North + West
Queen/worker, mainland form, predominantly North + West
Male, mainland form, predominantly North + West
Male, mainland form, predominantly North + West
7h
Local species: B. ruderatus, southern Britain form    Large garden bumblebee
  Bombus ruderatus
Worker, southern Britain
Worker, southern Britain
Queen, southern Britain
Male, southern Britain
7i
Extremely rare: B. subterraneus, extinct southern Britain form    Short-haired bumble-bee
  Bombus subterraneus
Queen, extinct southern Britain
Male, extinct southern Britain
Tail mostly yellow
8
  
Male, northern Britain pale form
Male, southern Britain, pale form
  
Queen/worker, northern Britain
Male, northern Britain
  
Male, extinct southern Britain
a: Widespread speciesb: Widespread speciesc: Local species: B. distinguendus (northern Britain)d: Extremely rare: B. subterraneus, extinct southern Britain form
Bombus campestrisBombus distinguendusBombus subterraneus
Tail orange, red, or brown
9
  
Orange-brown thorax, red tail
  
No bands, red tail
  
Bombus color pattern (one yellow band)
Bombus color pattern (two yellow bands a)
Bombus color pattern (two yellow bands b)
  
Bombus color pattern (three yellow bands)
a: Orange-red thoraxb: Without pale bandsc: With one or two yellow bandsd: With three yellow/olive/grey bands
  10    11    12    13  
Tail orange, red, or brown, thorax orange-red
10
  
.Queen/worker, southern Britain form
Queen/worker, southern Britain form
Male, southern Britain form
Male, southern Britain form
  
Queen/worker, North + West island form
Male, North + West island form
a: Widespread species: B. pascuorum, southern Britain formb: Local species: B. muscorum, North + West Britain, island form
Bombus pascuorumBombus muscorum
Tail orange, red, or brown, without pale bands
11
  
Queen/worker
Male
  
Queen/worker, southern Britain
Male, southern Britain
  
Queen/worker, rare dark form
Male, rare dark form
  
Female, southern Britain
Female, southern Britain
Male, southern Britain
Male, southern Britain
  
Queen/ worker, extinct southern Britain
  
Queen/worker, extinct southern Britain
a: Widespread speciesb: Local speciesc: Local species: B. sylvarum, rare dark formd: Local species: B. rupestris, southern Britaine: Extremely rare, perhaps extinct species: B. cullumanus, extinct southern Britainf: Extremely rare, perhaps extinct species: B. pomorum, extinct southern Britain
Bombus lapidariusBombus ruderariusBombus sylvarumBombus rupestrisBombus cullumanusBombus pomorum
Tail orange, red, or brown, with one or two yellow bands
12
  
Queen
Male
Worker
Male
  
Male
Male
Queen/worker, rare light form
  
Male
Male
Male
  
Queen, North + West uplands
Male, North + West uplands
Worker, North + West uplands
Worker, North + West uplands
  
Female, southern Britain
a: Widespread speciesb: Widespread speciesc: Widespread speciesd: Local species: B. monticola, North + West uplands of Britaine: Local species: B. rupestris, southern Britain
Bombus pratorumBombus lapidariusBombus sylvestrisBombus monticolaBombus rupestris
Tail orange, red, or brown, with three yellow/olive/grey bands
13a
Widespread species    Early nesting bumblebee
  Bombus pratorum
Male
13b
Widespread species    Red tailed bumblebee
  Bombus lapidarius
Male
13c
Local species: B. ruderarius, southern Britain   Bombus ruderarius
Male, southern Britain
Male, southern Britain
13d
Local species: B. sylvarum, southern Britain    Shrill carder-bee,  Knapweed carder-bee
  Bombus sylvarum
Queen/worker, southern Britain
Queen, southern Britain
Male, southern Britain
13e
Local species: B. jonellus, N island form    Heath humble-bee,  Small heath bumblebee
  Bombus jonellus
Queen/worker, N island form
Male, N island form
13f
Worker, North + West uplands
Male, North + West uplands
13g
Local species: B. rupestris, southern Britain    Hill Cuckoo-bee
  Bombus rupestris
Male, southern Britain
13h
Extremely rare: B. cullumanus, extinct southern Britain    Cullum's Humble-bee
  Bombus cullumanus
Male, extinct southern Britain
13i
Extremely rare: B. pomorum, extinct southern Britain    Apple Humble-bee
  Bombus pomorum
Male, extinct southern Britain
Tail black
14
  
Paul Williams BumblebeeID pascuorum vulgo f1.jpg
Male
  
Black thorax, black tail
a: Orange-brown thoraxb: All black (no pale bands)
Bombus pascuorum  15  
All black
15
  
Queen/worker, southern Britain: dark form
Male, southern Britain: dark form
  
Queen/worker, southern Britain: dark form
Male, southern Britain: dark form
  
Queen/worker (southern Britain: dark form)
Male (southern Britain: dark form)
a: Widespread species: B. hortorum (rarely having dark forms)b: Widespread species: B. campestris (rarely having dark forms)c: Local species: B. ruderatus (southern Britain form may be dark)
Bombus hortorumBombus campestrisBombus ruderatus



See also German page on Key to Nature: "Hummeln erkennen und schützen"