Bumblebee specialist group

Cullum's bumblebee

Cullum's bumblebee (Bombus cullumanus) © Steven Falk

Principal Investigator

Dr Paul Williams

Project summary

  • Focus: Assessing the conservation needs of bumblebee species worldwide.
  • Funding: Canadian Barcode of Life Network and the Natural Sciecnes and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

We spearheaded the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bumblebee Specialist Group to assess bumblebee species worldwide for the Red List of Threatened Species.     

The IUCN Red List evaluates the conservation status of plant and animal species to identify taxa threatened with extinction and promote their conservation. 

DNA Barcodes

Our research shows that Red List conservation priorities need to be based on sound taxonomy. For example, Bombus cullumanus had been considered one of the rarest of European bumblebees. The last British individual was seen around 1941, and the last French individual in 2004.   

By analysing DNA barcodes, however, we have shown that rather than the entire species being wiped out, it is just the western European dark colour form that is extinct. The dark colour form is a variant of a species that is more broadly distributed and often still quite common in parts of Russia and central Asia.    

In a global context, our work identifies the sister species of Bombus cullumanus, the Far Eastern B. unicus, as a much higher priority for conservation action due to its:

  • greater unique genetic divergence
  • restricted geographic range
  • low abundance in habitats that are likely to come under increasing human pressure.

DNA barcoding helps us asses and identify species. It is particularly useful when checking for cryptic species - two or more species hidden under one species name.

Creating identification tools

Our work on revisions and identification tools has moved into new, rich areas, with recent publications on the faunas of:

  • Nepal
  • Central Asia
  • Gansu (China).

We have completed  short guides to the bumblebee species of eastern and western North America. We are now working on a more detailed guide to the larger fauna of America north of Mexico. Another guide to the species of northern China is also in progress.      


Bumblebee identification guide

Browse British and global bumblebee species by their colour patterns with our handy guide.

Biodiversity research

We are creating molecular and digital tools to explore undiscovered biodiversity

Insect research

Our scientists are conserving and investigating the Museum's collections to help with cutting edge research

Entomology collections

Browse the oldest and most important entomology collection in the world of over 34 million insects and arachnids