Identifying bees

Red tailed bumblebee, John Hawkins, Surrey Hill PhotographyRed tailed bumblebee, John Hawkins, Surrey Hill Photography

A few helpful hints on identifying bumblebees

What colour is its tail?

Common bumblebees have tails that are white, red, buff or brown. Colours may fade as the bee gets older and some colours are confined to the tip of the tail, making them difficult to see.

What other bands can you see?

Look at the number, colour and position of bands.

Is it a ‘true’ or a ‘cuckoo’ bumblebee?

‘True’ bumblebee workers and queens collect pollen, so they have a back leg that has a broad shiny surface (the pollen basket), or has a ball of pollen stuck to it. Cuckoo bumblebees do not collect pollen, so this part of their leg is narrow and covered in thick dark hair. Male bumblebees’ legs look similar to cuckoo legs, but with fewer hairs.

Is it a male or a female?

How active are they? Females tend to be much busier flying quickly from flower to flower, while males tend to sit lazily on flowers as they don’t have to collect pollen.

A more accurate way of identifying the sex is by looking closer, males of some species have yellow hair on their faces and longer, thicker, curved antennae. Female antennae are shorter, narrower and tend to be elbowed. Males become common in late summer and autumn, whereas females are present throughout spring, summer and autumn.

Use our bee detective spotting sheet to see how many you can identify this summer. Download your own copy below. 


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bees_detective_sheet.pdf1.83 MB