Commercial bumblebee research

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) © Simon Koopmann, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Principal Investigator

Dr Paul Williams

Project summary

  • Focus: Research on commercial bumblebees and bumblebee identification.
  • Funding: SynTax research scheme, supported by BBSRC and NERC.

We are trying to isolate cryptic species in the most important group of commercial bumblebees.

This is the first step towards assessing conservation needs and finding the best indigenous pollinators in growing markets like China.

Cryptic species are two or more species hidden under one species name. We have also been developing molecular techniques for identifying bumblebee species.

The decline of bumblebee species is of great importance for pollination and food security. Most commercial bumblebee species belong to the subgenus Bombus s. str. Many the species in this group are morphologically cryptic.

This collaborative study brings together material to:

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

Analysing DNA barcodes of bumblebees

We are analysing DNA barcodes to identify all the species of Bombus s. str throughout their global ranges and map these ranges.   

Protecting indigenous species

We have found that orange-tailed bumblebees in northern China are part of B. patagiatus, which is widespread in Russia in its white-tailed form. The orange-tailed forms were previously described as B. hypocrita. Similar orange-tailed bees in Japan, however, are true B. hypocrita.

As demand for pollination services increases, bees are more likely to be transported between countries. To conserve genetic diversity, we advocate preventing trade and movement of B. patagiatus from China to Japan and of B. hypocrita from Japan to China. Previous introductions of other species of this group have caused severe declines in indigenous species.

Identifying bumblebees

We are currently developing an updated record of world bumblebee species and an identification guide. The guide will be useful for both commercial rearing of bumblebees and conservation.

There are around 250 species of bumblebee in the world but identification difficulties have led to nearly 3,000 different species names.

Bumblebees are often identified using their varied colour patterns. This is complicated because each species varies a lot and different species often converge on looking very similar. Our research has shown that quite simple diagrams of colour pattern can be useful in helping to understand colour-pattern evolution and can help in identifying species.

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