Questions about bumblebee species and names
is a cuckoo bumblebee?
How many species of bumblebee are there in the
What are the common names of bumblebees, and why
bother with Latin names?
What is the taxonomic classification of
Which UK bumblebees are endangered?
How did the bumblebee get its name?
There are about 25 British species according to
Prys-Jones (19 species of Bombus and 6 species of
cuckoo bumblebees). And about 65 species in Europe, and 250 species of bumblebee have been discovered so
far worldwide. However we cannot be sure that every species has been found, or
that none of the species that have been described have since gone extinct, or
that a species described and named in one country is not the same as one
described and given a different name in another country. So this is a difficult
question that even the experts cannot give a definitive answer on. I have read
that there are estimated to be about 45 000 species of Hymenoptera (the name
for the family of bees, wasps, ants and sawflies) in Europe alone! Taxonomy is
an on-going process, new species are found, old species go extinct, on close
examination one existing species is found to be two, or more slightly different
species, or two previously separate species are found to be actually just one.
For example many years ago Bombus terrestris and
B. lucorum were thought to be the same species. And just recently it
has been recognised that a bumblebee that was previously known as B.
lucorum and was found to inhabit colder areas in the NW UK is actually a
separate species and has been given the name B. magnus. It differs
slightly from B. lucorum in that the yellow band on the thorax curves
round the wing base in B. magnus, but is shorter and doesn't curve, or
hardly curves in B. lucorum. That this has happened only in the last few
years to a well-known species in a highly populated, well-studied country
indicates the difficulty of answering the question.
Things are made
even more difficult by the lack of funding that taxonomy receives. TV
programmes, magazines, books and charities go on about conservation,
biodiversity, ecological hot spots and all the other buzz words, and how we
should save this or that area. But most of the time we don't even know what is
there to save. We may know about the presence or absence of the bigger furry or
feathery things (but probably less than the "experts" would like to admit on
the population size, status and viability) but that's about all. The back rooms
of museums are full of specimen jars of breathtakingly wonderful insects,
spiders and other non furry things that are known to be new to science but have
never been even given a name or described, and it is probably years till they
will be. The museums don't have the money and they don't have the staff. So if
you want your name to live on forever fund taxonomy and have a beautiful
beetle, bee or insect of your choice named after you!
The UK is
probably the world's most studied and documented area yet only about 30% of the
insects can be identified as there are no documentation on the other 70%. And
the in the Hymenoptera, (the bee, ant, wasp and sawfly family of insects) which
is a well-studied and economically important family, only about half of the UK
species can be identified. Imagine what these numbers must be like for a poorer
country without the long history of interest in natural history, the vast army
of amateur entomologists, and the huge and increasing number of gardeners who
are realising that insects can be "a good thing".
||Animalia This contains all the species of animals.
||Arthropoda or Uniramia Animals without backbones, but with jointed
||Insecta or Hexapoda Insects, as the name hexapoda
suggests, animals that have six legs, at least most of the adults
||Hymenoptera Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
||Apoidea Bees and some wasps.
In the dictionary bumble has two
1. To move or act in a clumsy, unsteady or incompetent way.
To make a low humming or droning sound.
Bumble is thought to come from the
Middle English word bomblen which means to boom.
cuckoo bumblebee, like the bird it is named after, lays its eggs in another
bumblebees nest and leaves the workers of that nest to rear the young. Of
course the eggs she lays are either queens or males, and the cuckoo queens
emerge from hibernation in late spring or early summer, much later than
ordinary bumblebee queens. So by the time the cuckoo queens have emerged the
bumblebee queens will have already established their nests. The cuckoo differs
physically from ordinary queen bumblebee in that she has no pollen basket on her rear legs, does not exude wax
from between her abdominal segments, is slightly less hairy than ordinary
bumblebees, and all species have shortish tongues. Cuckoos have a much harder
body than normal bumblebees, and because no wax is exuded there are no weak
points between the abdominal segments, so if there is a fight between a cuckoo
and another worker or queen it is almost impossible for the queen or worker to
force her sting into the cuckoo body. Apart from that cuckoo bumblebees usually
have the same pattern of hair colour as the bumblebees' nests they lay
It is thought
that the cuckoo queens locate an established nest by smell. She may go right in
and sting the existing queen to death then lay eggs, or she may sneak in the
nest and hide for a few days until she smells the same as the nest, then lay
her eggs. Whatever method she uses it spells the beginning of the end for the
nest because the cuckoo larva consume resources but contribute nothing to the
nest. To see images visit the cuckoo page.
don't think I have ever used any common names for bumblebees, and the reason
for this is that they are not very well known, and are inaccurate. One estimate I read said that each species has an average of 11 different common names, and Bombus lucorum has over 130! However I have been asked by a
few people about common names, so I've listed the ones that I've found so far
below with the Latin name on the left. Most of these names were found in books,
but one or two have come from papers and articles.
So there you
have it, common names are of little use. For example take Bombus lucorum and B. hortorum, both have similar colouring and are of similar lengths,
and both have whitish tails, and both are called white tailed bee. However if I
showed you them both and said that B. lucorum has the typical fat
bumblebee build whilst B. hortorum is altogether thinner and more
delicately built you would immediately be able to tell which was which. Also
I'll bet that there are bumblebees with white tails in the US, Europe and Far
East that may also be called white tailed bee.
lapidarius (lapidarius is Latin for of stone)
||Stone bumble bee (it
commonly nests under stones)
Red tailed bee (it is one of the bees that has
an orangey red tail)
Large red-tailed bumblebee
|Bombus terrestris (terra is Latin for earth)
||Large earth bumblebee
(it nests in the ground)
Buff tailed bumblebee
||Small earth bumblebee
(the queens are usually a little smaller than B. terrestris, though the
workers of these two species are indistinguishable)
The buff tailed
bumblebee (the queen has a buff tail, workers vary from white to buff)
Two-banded white tail
|Bombus pratorum (pratum is Latin for meadow)
||Early nesting bumblebee
(Its nests are usually the first to mature and end)
||Callum's bumblebee (I'm
not sure who Callum is/was, but his name lives on in a bee) Sadly this
bumblebee, normally found in moorland, has not been seen for years.
Knapweed carder bee
|Bombus hortorum (hortus is Latin for garden)
||Small garden bumblebee
(it is a slightly smaller version of B. ruderatus)
Long tongued bee (it has the longest tongue of any bumblebee found
in the UK)
Long faced bee (its head is narrower and longer than other
bumblebees of its size)
White tailed bumblebee
|Bombus pascuorum (pascum is Latin for pastures)
||Common carder bee (often
nests in rough grass)
Brown bumble bee
||Large carder bee
||Northern white-tailed bumblebee
||Red-shanked carder bee
||Brown-banded carder bee
||Red-tailed cuckoo bee
||Barbut's cuckoo bee
||Field cuckoo bee
||Gypsy cuckoo bee
||Forest cuckoo bumblebee