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How to help bumblebees

David Chapman / 08 July 2022

Find out about the different species of British bumblebees, including how to differentiate between them, and what gardeners can do to help bumblebees in their garden.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
A queen buff-tailed bumblebee has a buff coloured tail. Photography by David Chapman

The one thing that all bees have in common is that they feed on pollen and nectar, as such they are usually quite hairy insects. Some bees, including honeybees and bumblebees, have stiff hairs on their hind legs which allow them to make ‘baskets’ of pollen, others, including the leaf-cutter bee, carry pollen under their bodies. But only the females are adapted for carrying pollen.

Bees can be split into two types: solitary and social.

The large majority of British bees, about 250 species, are solitary bees. In these species it is the female who makes a cell in which she lays her eggs and then stocks the cell with pollen to feed the hatching larvae. The term ‘solitary bee’ might seem odd because there can be huge colonies of these bees in suitable habitats, but the critical thing is that each bee works independently.

The key feature of a social bee family is that they live together in one hive, they all have their own roles and work together for the common good. The social bees comprise of honeybees and bumblebees.

We have just one species of honeybee, known as the ‘European honeybee’, though there are several different races of this species. Most honeybees found in the UK live in domesticated hives though wild swarms occur quite widely. Their colonies can become extremely large sometimes with many thousands of individuals in one hive.

This brings me to the bumblebees.

Tree bumblebees
Tree bumblebees often make their nest in bird boxes .


Like the honeybee, bumblebees are social though they live in much smaller groups, typically between 50 and 150 individuals. Bumblebees are distinguished from most other bees by their large and very hairy bodies together with their typically random, bumbling flight.

Their year begins with a queen bumblebee which hibernates in a hole underground. On warm sunny winter days she might come out to feed on nectar to boost her reserves but it isn’t until the spring that she emerges to establish a new nesting site.

She will nest in a small hole, some choose bird nest boxes, others might be in a disused mouse hole for example. She collects pollen and nectar to store in her nest and then lays eggs which she will stay to incubate by fluttering her wings to generate heat. Once the eggs have hatched the larvae feed on the pollen and nectar provided by their queen until they are ready to pupate and change into adult bumblebees.

These first bumblebees are all adult females which are known as ‘workers’, they collect more pollen and guard the nest inside which the queen will lay more eggs. By late summer her eggs will be producing further queens and males, these mate and the queens keep the fertilised eggs inside them. These are the eggs they will lay next spring. The queens then fatten on pollen and nectar before hibernating and starting the process over again, the workers and males don’t survive the winter.

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Garden bumblebee
This is a garden bumblebee, the two yellow bands at the intersection of thorax and abdomen merge into one, notice the pollen ‘basket’ on the back leg.

The cuckoo in the nest

Some bumblebees have evolved to follow a different lifestyle. In common with the bird which we know as a cuckoo, there are also cuckoo bumblebees. These lay their eggs in the nests of other bumblebees and allow the other species to feed and take care of their young. The cuckoos have no need for workers so their young are a mix of males and queens which mate before the queens fatten themselves and hibernate in much the same way as the other bumblebee species. Rather than being classified as social bees the cuckoos are ‘parasitic’, they are quite widespread but less numerous and probably less frequently spotted because they don’t need to collect pollen for their young.

Types of bumblebees

There are twenty-four different types of bumblebee in the UK, eighteen are social the remaining six are cuckoos. Here are the commonest types of social bumblebee split by tail colour:

Species with red tails:

Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius): Completely black except for dark orange or red tail (though males have some yellow on thorax and head).

Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum): Also has an orange tail but also has two yellow bands, one on thorax and one on abdomen.

Species with white tails:

White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum): Has a white tail and two yellow bands.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris): Only the queens have a buff tail, the others have white tails making them difficult to identify from white-tailed bumblebee though males have more yellow on face and thorax.

Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum): Similar to white-tailed though it has three bands of yellow (two of which can merge).

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum): White tail, ginger thorax and black abdomen make this easy to identify. Unlike others this species likes to nest in bird boxes and tree holes.

Other bumblebee species

Common Carder (Bombus pascuorum): Gingery-yellow all over.

For help with identification of all British bumblebees see the bumblebee species guide - Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Red-tailed bumblebee
The red-tailed bumblebee is completely dark with a reddish tail.

How gardeners can help bumblebees

To help bumblebees in our gardens we should all do a couple of things.

Firstly we should allow some parts of our gardens to become a little messy or wild. Leave piles of twigs, branches, logs, leaf-litter and allow grasses to grow taller. These spots will allow wildlife to move in and provide places for queen bumblebees to hibernate and nest. Secondly we should try to grow plants which flower throughout the year with the greatest abundance in spring and summer when they need it most. Here are a few ideas:

Winter: winter-flowering heather; winter honeysuckle; hellebore; cornelian cherry; mahonia.

Spring: foxglove; crocus; bugle; tree lupin; wild cherry tree; goat willow; ceanothus; pyracantha; rosemary.

Summer: comfrey; elecampane; privet; lavender; mallow; viper’s bugloss; marjoram; thyme.

Autumn: mint; sedum; verbena; hebe; cosmos.

Read more suggestions for the best garden plants to help wildlife, as well as the best wildlife-friendly shrubs

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.