Steven Falk > Collections > Insects > Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants and relatives) > Apoidea (bees)

Bumblebees (Bombus) are our most familiar wild bees, and the largest if one ignores the occasional introduced Xylocopa violacea. Twenty-four species are currently residential in Britain if one considers B. magnus and B. cryptarum separate species to lucorum. Three species have become extinct (B. cullumanus, B, pomorum and B. subterraneus), though the last species is subject to re-introduction attempts at the time of writing.

All but six of our Bombus species are social, producing colonies that have numerous sterile females (workers) serving a single fertile female (the queen). The life cycle thus resembles that of honey bees, though bumblebee colonies never last more than a few months, and are smaller and less complex than those of honey bees.

The social species each visit a good range of flowers and most can exploit a variety of habitats. But subtle ecological and behavorial differences allow co-existance of up to a dozen social species in an area in exceptional cases (e.g. Salisbury Plain or Dungeness). Six or seven co-existing species is more typical of lowland Britain.

Six Bombus species (barbutellus, bohemicus, campestris, rupestris, sylvestris and vestalis) are social parasites of other bumblebees. They are termed 'cuckoo bumblebees' (often shortened to cuckoo-bees) and lack workers or any pollen collecting apparatus on the hind legs. The large females invade the nest of a suitable host species and then use the workers to bring up their own offspring - hence the term 'cuckoo'. Cuckoo bumblebees were placed in their own genus (Psithyrus) until recently, but it is now considered that thay have evolved directly from social Bombus so Psithyrus is now a subgenus of Bombus.

Seven social species can currently be regarded as widespread and relatively frequent (hortorum, hypnorum, lapidarius, lucorum, pascuorum, pratorum and terrestris). The remaining social species are restricted and have mostly declined substantially during the course of the twentieth century. Declines have been most dramatic in species like distinguendus, muscorum, sylvarum and soroeensis and these species are now vulnerable over most of their range. Two species that had declined last century (humilis and ruderatus) are now showing local recoveries, which may be due to agri-environment schemes, climate change or a combination of the two.

There is much published information for bumblebees. Recommended books include:

Benton (2006) British Bumblebees. Collins New Naturalist. ISBN 000 7174500.

Edwards & Jenner (2009) Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland. Ocelli. ISBN 9780954971311.

Prys-Jones & Corbet (2011) Bumblebees (3rd edition). Pelagic Publishing. ISBN 1907807063.

Goulson (2003) Bumblebees: Behavior, Conservation, and Ecology. Oxford Biology. ISBN 0198526075.

Sladen (1989) The Humble-bee (modern reprint of this1912 classic). Logaston Press. ISBN 095102423X.

There are also fine books on the bumblebees of Essex (Benton, 2000, Lopinga Books) and Norfolk (Owens, 2012, Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists' Society).

On-line information is available from the websites of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust:




and Natural England:

An online account of Warwickshire's bumblebees is available from my website:

Images of species on the near-Continent that could potentially occur in Britain include this Swedish site (click 'Bildarkiv' & drill down):

A catalogue of world bumblebees, produced by Paul Williams of the Natural History Museum is available on-line:

An on-line European atlas has been produced by the Atlas Hymenoptera project:

The Dutch species are covered here:

The French species are listed here:

Images by Steven Falk unless stated, arranged in sequence of males, queens, workers and (for scarcer species) habitat.

Bombus humilis (Brown-banded Carder-bee)

Bombus humilis...

69 photos

Bombus lucorum (White-tailed Bumblebee)

Bombus lucorum...

37 photos