Commercial bumblebees

This research is trying to isolate the cryptic species found in the most important group of commercial bumblebees. This is a first step towards assessing conservation needs, and finding the best indigenous pollinators in growing markets like China.

The decline of bumblebee species is of great importance for pollination and food security.

Almost all of the bumblebee species that are used commercially belong to the subgenus Bombus s. str.  A group where almost all the species are morphologically cryptic

This broadly collaborative study brings together material to:

  • avoid fixed assumptions concerning the limits of problematic species
  • sample multiple sites from across the entire geographic ranges of all of the principal named taxa
  • fit an explicit model for how characters change within an evolutionary framework
  • apply consistent criteria within this evolutionary framework for recognising species

Analysing COI barcodes allows us for the first time to diagnose all of the species of Bombus s. str throughout their global ranges and to map these global ranges.


Map of the cryptic species in East Asia

Map of some of the cryptic bumblebee species in East Asia

As an example of the results, we have found that orange-tailed bumblebees in North China are actually part of the widespread Russian but otherwise white-tailed species B. patagiatus, (previously described as B. hypocrita) whereas the similar orange-tailed bees in Japan are true B. hypocrita.

As demand for pollination services increases, bees are more likely to be transported between countries. In order to conserve genetic resources of pollinators, we advocate preventing trade and movement of B. patagiatus from China into Japan and of B. hypocrita from Japan into China, because introductions of other species of this group (B. terrestris) into new areas have caused severe declines of indigenous species.


Cryptic species
Morphologically cryptic species are those that are physically indistinguishable but do not interbreed. In order to distinguish these species, data from DNA is often studied.  

COI barcodes
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is used in DNA studies because of its high mutation rate and ease of extraction. The ‘cytochrome c oxidase subunit I’ (COI) gene from mtDNA can often be used to discriminate between species.  

Entomology project staff: