The picture shows a white-tailed bumblebee on a clover flower.
There are lots of different types of bees of course, apart from the usual honey bees that are kept in hives. Like so many of my contemporaries when I was at school in the sixties I was fascinated to learn about the "language of bees" and the work done by Karl von Frisch. The Waggle dance described a particular figure-eight dance of the honey bee. When they perform this dance foragers share, with other bees in the hive, information about the direction and distance to flowers having nectar and pollen etc.
But this is about Bumblebees.
Which Bumblebee is which?
Most people are unaware that there are lots of different types of bee in Britain, including bumblebees (genus Bombus), honeybees (Apis mellifera) and numerous small solitary species. Bumblebees are the large, furry and often colourful insects that frequently feature in children’s story books and on greetings cards. Honeybees, widely kept in domestic hives for their honey, are smaller, slender, drab and relatively hairless. Even a casual inspection of flowers in a garden or park will reveal several very differently coloured bumblebee species. In fact six or seven species can be found in almost any reasonable sized garden, and if a few of the right sorts of plant are grown, this total can be doubled. Most can be readily identified from the colour pattern. You can get very close to bumblebees as they visit flowers without any danger of getting stung – they are never aggressive. Note that bumblebees have three main body parts – the head, thorax (middle section to which wings and legs are attached) and abdomen. They also have two pairs of wings, and three pairs of legs.
Most illustrations mostly show queen bees. Workers generally have the same colour pattern but are smaller (the notable exception being the Buff-tailed Bumblebee where queens and workers differ in tail colour). In some species male differs in colour to the queen. With practice, males of all species can be distinguished by their longer antennae, and by the absence of pollen baskets on their hind legs. There are two common bumblebee species that are very hard to tell apart: workers of Buff-tailed and White-tailed Bumblebees can only be distinguished by the subtle difference in the colour of the yellow bands, and by the thin brown margin to the white tail in bufftails. Even experts struggle to separate them in the field, so feel free to record these as “yellow & black bee with a white tail”.
There are six species very common in gardens throughout the UK, apart from the far north of Scotland. In most gardens they will make up more than 90% of all bumblebees, so learning to identify these six is a major step towards becoming a bumblebee expert!
1. Buff-tailed Bumblebee Bombus terrestris
Queens very large and common in early spring. Workers have largely white tail but usually with a hint of buff at the front margin. Yellow bands slightly darker than in the White-tailed Bumblebee.
2. White-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lucorum
3. Garden Bumblebee Bombus hortorum
A common bee, often nesting under garden sheds. Distinguished from Bufftailed Bumblebee by pure-white tail. A very long-tongued species preferring deep flowers (e.g. foxgloves, Delphinium, honeysuckle). Distinguished from the generally smaller Heath Bumblebee by much longer face when viewed from the front.
4. Red-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lapidarius
5. Early Bumblebee Bombus pratorum
6. Common Carder Bee Bombus pascuorum
Very common on chalk downland and frequent in gardens. Distinguished from the much rarer Red-shanked Carder Bee by the black hairs on the pollen basket of the hind leg. A small bumblebee, often nesting in tit-boxes. The yellow band on the abdomen is sometimes missing in females. Colonies are very short-lived, producing males as early as April. Rarely seen from July onwards. Abundant everywhere, the only common all-brown bumblebee. Can generally be distinguished from the much rarer Brown-banded Carder Bee by the presence of some black hairs on both sides of the abdomen.
Below are a few rarer species that may also occur in gardens:
Ruderal Bumblebee (much declined recently) Bombus ruderatus
A rare species, found sporadically in south and east England. Very variable in colour. Pale specimens similar to Garden Bumblebee but yellow band on back of thorax (A) is noticeably thicker in the middle. An entirely black form occurs as well.
Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum
This species is expanding its range northwards, having arrived on the south coast from France about six years ago.
Heath Bumblebee Bombus jonellus
Colonised the UK in 2001. Has a very distinctive colouration and is becoming more common in gardens across the south of England. Prefers to nest in holes within trees. A small bee, found on mountains, moorland, lowland heaths and, sometimes, in gardens. Distinguished from the larger Garden Bumblebee by short heart-shaped face, when viewed from the front.
Red-shanked Carder Bee (much declined recently) Bombus ruderarius
A rare, southerly species, that has declined in recent years. It can be distinguished from the much more common Red-tailed Bumblebee by the red hairs of the pollen basket on the hind leg.
Brown-banded Carder Bee (much declined recently) Bombus humilis
A rare species, found mainly in the south of England. Mainly known from gardens in East London. This species can be distinguished from the Common Carder Bee by the absence of black hairs on the sides of the abdomen and by the brown band across the abdomen.
Illustrations: Click here for a link to Steven Falk’s amazing website with illustrations of all these bumblebees plus many others and a lot more information!
Bumblebee species Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed bumblebee)
When we had some bees take over a blue-tit nesting box we were very curious about which sort of bees had arrived. We learned that they were tree bumblebees, quite small compared to the usual bumblebees we had seen in the past, with white tails. Apparently they have moved steadily north in Britain and originate from France. Naturally we were pleased to learn that the swarming males had no sting! So they were not "dangerous" but more interested in the female worker bees anyway. A few females can be seen peeping out from the entrance hole of the nest box. Every so often one of the workers would zoom out to look for a flower in order to obtain food.