Find British species by colour pattern
- what this colour key can and can't do
How to use this colour key
Further information on each species
- what this colour key can and can't do
- This is a simple three-step key to British
bumblebees (or 'bumble bees', see the list
of species). It is intended for people with no specialist
knowledge of bumblebees but who do have a bee to compare
with the pictures. Make sure that your specimen is a
bumblebee by excluding any flies, moths, or beetles
that mimic bumblebees. Unlike these other insects, bumblebees
(see the illustration above) have: (1) clear or slightly
cloudy membranous wings without scales; (2) two pairs
of wings that are usually hooked together (you can check
this by stroking the wing with a pencil tip to see if
they will unhook); and (3) long stout antennae with
an 'elbow' after the first long segment near their base.
- While this key usually works for the common
species, not all of the local and rare species can be
distinguished using colour alone (see examples).
Notes on these rarer species are included, but to be
sure of identifying them correctly, you will need to
use one of the more technical keys that may require
using a microscope (e.g.
Prys-Jones & Corbet, 1987,
1991; Benton, 2006).
bees may not be identifiable using this key for other
reasons. Bees that are wet or dirty, or have had their
hair rubbed off, will not be identifiable with this
key. Old bees that have spent a long time in the sun
may fade (e.g. from red to yellow, or from yellow to
nearly white) and so will not match the patterns of
the fresh specimens shown here. Colour patterns are
also very variable, so they may not match exactly the
examples (most other keys show less of the variation).
Occasionally, bees are found that have very odd colour
patterns, which are not shown here. They may either
be mutants (e.g. with one or more colours completely
missing), or may have been damaged during development
(e.g. chilling often causes greying or additional pale
bands to be added to the pattern).
to use this colour key
will need to compare a bee (or a photo of a bee) with
the colour patterns in the key. Be careful - queen and
worker bumblebees can sting! A hand lens may help to
see the details, but it is not essential.
colours shown are the colours of the hair, not of the
body surface, which is black or brown. The colours of
the hair are described as being black or pale, so 'pale'
includes white, grey, yellow, orange, red, and brown.
In the colour-pattern
diagrams, the colour pattern is simplified by artificially
dividing the body up into rectangular areas and showing
just the predominant colour for each.
step 1, you need to choose one of three colour
groups for the bee's tail colour (orange-red, yellow-white,
or black). The tail colour is taken to be the palest
colour on the last few segments of the abdomen.
For this bee, the pale colour of the tail is yellowish
step 2, you need to choose which banding pattern
from the diagrams most closely matches your bee. The
banding pattern refers to the number of pale bands
crossing (or part-way crossing) the body, not counting
the tail or the head, and counting bands on the thorax
and abdomen as separate bands.
For this bee, there is one yellow band at the front
of the thorax and another on the second segment of
the abdomen after the waist, so it has two yellow
step 3, you need to compare the details of the
colour pattern with the range of colour patterns shown.
To help with this, the species are grouped by whether
they are widespread and common, or whether they are
local or rare or extinct. Most bees found will belong
to the widespread common group.
For this bee, among the widespread species, the
colour pattern matches most closely the queen of B.
terrestris, with a yellowish white tail and two golden
find out more, you can follow the links to notes on
the species in Britain, and onwards to notes on their
taxonomy and nomenclature.
- For B. terrestris, see the British
notes (including notes on introductions), and
photos of the male
genitalia (for checking identification of males).
information on each species
names at step 3 of the guide are linked to pages showing
the major colour variation within each species (e.g.
pascuorum). The species in these pages are arranged
by whether they are widespread,
local, or rare
/ extinct, with a separate page for the cuckoo
species (subgenus Psithyrus).
British and worldwide distribution maps and outline
notes on habitats and behaviour are included.
to all of those who have kindly contributed suggestions
on this guide, including Peter Barnard, Ted Benton,
Andrew Bourke, Sally Corbet, Liz Day, Sam Droege, Mike
Edwards, George Else, Dave Goulson, Murdo Macdonald,
Juliet Osborne, Bridget Peacock, Andrew Polaszek, Oliver
Prys-Jones, and Catrin Westphal.
comments and suggestions to Paul
British list | distribution
of British bumblebees | colour
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