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Getting to know your 'white-tailed' bees

19th May 2020

White-tailed bees can be a confusing bunch. Learn to identify some of the most frequently encountered species in a new post by Charlotte Rankin.

Cuckoo bee sp (c) Ryan Clark

A black-and-yellow striped bumblebee paired with a white tail is the classic depiction of a bumblebee. Your ‘White-tailed Bumblebee’ can in fact be one of several species of bumblebee with a white-tail. This post will cover how to identify the most common of these species. While they can appear similar, these species can be identified by taking a closer look at key features such as the banding and remaining hair colour. These bumblebees can be seen on the wing from spring through to the end of summer, with the production of males and new queens marking the end of nests.

White-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lucorum agg.

The underground nests are often found in old rodent burrows and can contain over 200 workers.

Queens have a clean-white tail, a lemon collar behind the head and a lemon band on the abdomen. It is never tawny or off-white like that of queen Buff-tailed Bumblebees. The colour of the bands are lemony yellow rather than the darker yellow of Buff-tailed Bumblebees.

Workers resemble smaller versions of the queens. Despite the name, workers of Buff-tailed bumblebees have white tails and so are difficult to separate from worker White-tailed Bumblebees. Out later in summer, the males are often extensively yellow and have yellow-haired faces.

This bumblebee is actually a group of three species that can only be separated confidently by DNA. However, this aggregation can still be recorded as “Bombus lucorum sensu lato”.

 

Garden Bumblebee ­Bombus hortorum

This species may choose to nest underground or amongst dense vegetation. Nests tend to be quite small and generally produce less than 100 workers. This bumblebee can be confused with the White-tailed Bumblebee complex; but two key features help to identify this species.

Unlike White-tailed Bumblebees, this bumblebee has an extra yellow band on the thorax which essentially forms a double midriff band; one band at the bottom of the thorax and one at the top of the abdomen.

The face is also noticeably longer than other bumblebees and is often described as ‘horse-shaped’. Accompanying this long face is a very long tongue, the longest of any bumblebee species. This means you will likely find this bumblebee visiting tubular flowers such as Foxgloves.

Workers resemble smaller version of the queens. Males resemble females but have longer antennae and, like all male bumblebees, lack the shiny pollen baskets of females on the back legs.

Heath Bumblebee Bombus jonellus

This species nests underground or amongst dense vegetation and generally produce no more than 50 workers.

This is not as common as the other featured white-tailed species but can be confused with the Garden Bumblebee due to its double midriff band and white-tail. The key feature to look out for is the short face and tongue unlike that of Garden Bumblebees. The queens are also smaller than those of Garden Bumblebees.

Workers resemble small queens while the males have yellow-haired faces and longer antennae. This yellow-haired face contrasts with the black-haired faces of male Garden Bumblebees.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a handy comparison between the faces of Heath and Garden Bumblebees.

 

 Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum

Favouring aerial-nesting sites, you may find this bee nesting in your garden bird boxes or roof eaves. While the Tree Bumblebee has a white tail, it is easily distinguished from other white-tailed species by its brown-haired thorax and black-haired abdomen: there are no yellow-haired bands like that of other white-tailed species. Workers resemble small queens while the males have longer antennae, a ginger tuft on their heads and often have brown hair extending onto their abdomens.

What if my white-tailed bumblebee doesn’t fit these descriptions?

If your white-tailed bumblebee has darker or smoky wings, you have a species of cuckoo bumblebee. Like the bird, these bumblebees take over the nests of other species. These bees are not as common as their hosts and can be trickier to identify, but The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a handy online guide.

Please do continue to send in your bee sightings to the North East Bee Hunt’s iRecord form and all the information on how can be found on The North East Bee Hunt webpage. If you have spotted bees and are unsure of their identification, you can follow the Facebook thread and share your bee images for help from the friendly Bee Team. See below for a collection of bees sighted by North East Bee Hunt participants.

By Charlotte Rankin, local naturalist