A beginner’s guide to bumblebee-spotting

The UK has 24 species of bumblebee, but there are eight main types you’re likely to see out and about.

Jul 20 2022

a bumblebee on a purple flower

Now that summer has arrived, sunny weather means that outside is the place to be(e)! And while we enjoy country walks and relaxing time spent in the fresh air, Hampshire's pollinators are hard at work.

Bees, moths, butterflies, and other animals and insects move pollen between flowers and fertilise them. This means that plants can produce seeds and fruit, supplying animals and humans alike with food, while also regulating the climate. Nearly 80% of all flowering plants are pollinated by insects and one of the most well known and most important is the bumblebee.

The UK has 24 species of bumblebee, but there are eight main types you're likely to see out and about. This is an especially good time of year to spot bumblebees and it can be fun to know how to identify the different species. Let's find out what they are.

Buff-tailed bumblebee

The Queens have buff (light brownish-yellow) tails, while the worker bees are usually whiter with only a hint of buff at the top of their abdomens. Their yellow bands are quite dark compared to other similar bees. While Buff-tailed bumblebees are native to Europe, you can find them in places such as Japan, Northern Africa, and even Tasmania.

a buff-tailed bumblebee on a purple flower

White-tailed bumblebee

White-tailed bumblebees look quite like Buff-tailed bumblebees. However, as their name suggests, they have pure white tails, with brighter yellow bands. White-tailed bumblebees, much like other bumblebees and honeybees, prefer blue and purple flowers over other colours as they produce higher volumes of nectar. If you can, try planting blue and purple flowers to attract bumblebees into your garden.

a white-tailed bumblebee on a cream coloured flower

Early bumblebee

A small bee with one or two yellow bands and a sunset orangey-red tail. You’re unlikely to see these bees after July, but if you do, you can tell the males from their Queen by their yellow faces.
an early bumblebee on a strip of yellow bark

Red-tailed bumblebee

Much like the Buff-tailed and White-tailed bees, the clue to identifying these bees is in the name. While they look quite like the Early bumblebee, Red-tailed females are all black with a red tail and the males have just one yellow band at the front of their body. Their favourite types of flowers are thistles, daises, or dandelions.
a red-tailed bumblebee resting on a pink flower

Garden bumblebee

Garden bumblebees have white tails with yellow bands. Their faces are longer than other bees, and their tongues can stretch up to 2cm – the length of their bodies!

a garden bee on a pink plant

Heath bumblebee

Heath bumblebees look like Garden bumblebees, with three yellow stripes and a white tail. The main way to tell them apart is that their faces are shorter than the more ‘horse-like’ Garden bumblebee.

a heath bumblebee on a purple flower

Common carder bumblebee

Common carder bees are ginger or brown with thin black bands. They are the most distinctive of the ‘Big 8’ bumblebees, so make sure to keep your eyes peeled. They’re nocturnal though so you might need some night vision goggles!

a common carder bumblebee on a purple flower

Tree bumblebee

Despite originating from France and mainland Europe, this bumblebee is now widespread across the UK since its first sighting in 2001. It has brown, black, and white patterned hair. Be sure to check above ground in trees or bird boxes for this bumblebee as that’s where they like to nest.

a tree bumblebee resting on a purple flower

Looking out for bees

Spotting bees and trying to identify them can be a fun activity while enjoying time outdoors. Please treat them with respect and do your best to keep them safe. Without them, the world would be a far less colourful place.

You don’t need to be a beekeeper to help our fuzzy friends. Growing plants like thyme and catmint will give bees a helping hand, and other bee friendly plants like coneflower produce seedheads in winter which birds will love too!

If you’re interested in learning more about bees and beekeeping, please have a look at our interview with a local beekeeper and let us know your thoughts on Facebook and Instagram.

You can also visit our Pollinator Hub and sign up for our newsletter for more information about pollinators and how we’re helping them thrive in Hampshire.

Sign up to our newsletter