Frequently asked questions about bumblebee species and names

Questions about bumblebee species and names

What is a cuckoo bumblebee?
How many species of bumblebee are there in the world?
What are the common names of bumblebees, and why bother with Latin names?
What is the taxonomic classification of bumblebees?
Which UK bumblebees are endangered?
How did the bumblebee get its name?

How many species of bumblebee are there in the world?

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 realizing that insects can be "a good thing".

What is the taxonomic classification of bumblebees?

Kingdom Animalia This contains all the species of animals.
Phylum Arthropoda or Uniramia Animals without backbones, but with jointed legs.
Class Insecta or Hexapoda Insects, as the name hexapoda suggests, animals that have six legs, at least most of the adults have.
Order Hymenoptera Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
Superfamily Apoidea Bees and some wasps.
Family Apidae Bees.
Genus Bombus Bumblebees.

How did the bumblebee get its name?

In the dictionary bumble has two meanings.
1. To move or act in a clumsy, unsteady or incompetent way.
2. To make a low humming or droning sound.
Bumble is thought to come from the Middle English word bomblen which means to boom.

What is a cuckoo bumblebee?

A cuckoo bumblebee, like the bird it is named after, lays its eggs in another bumblebee’s 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 in.

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.

What are the common names of bumblebees, and why bother with Latin names?

I 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.

LATIN NAME COMMON NAME
Bombus 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
Two-banded white tail
Bombus lucorum 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)
White tailed bumblebee
Two-banded white tail
Bombus soroeensis Illfracombe bumblebee
Broken-belted bumblebee
Bombus pratorum (pratum is Latin for meadow) Early nesting bumblebee (Its nests are usually the first to mature and end)
Early bumblebee
Bombus jonellus Heath bumblebee
Bombus callumanus
Bombus cullumanus
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.
Bombus ruderatus Large garden bumblebee
Knapweed carder bee
Ruderal bumblebee
Bombus hortorum (hortus is Latin for garden) Small garden bumblebee (it is a slightly smaller version of B. ruderatus)
Large garden bumblebee
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
Three-banded white tail.
Bombus subterraneus Short haired bumblebee
Bombus distinguendus Great yellow bumblebee
Bombus sylvarum Shrill carder bee
Bombus pascuorum (pascum is Latin for pastures) Common carder bee (often nests in rough grass)
Brown bumble bee
Bombus muscorum Large carder bee
Moss carder bee
Bombus magnus Northern white-tailed bumblebee
Bombus monticola Bilberry bumblebee
Blaeberry bumblebee
Bombus ruderarius Red-shanked carder bee
Bombus humilis Brown-banded carder bee
Bombus hypnorum Tree bumblebee
Bombus rupestris Red-tailed cuckoo bee
Bombus barbutellus Barbut's cuckoo bee
Bombus campestris Field cuckoo bee
Bombus bohemicus Gypsy cuckoo bee
Bombus sylvestris Forest cuckoo bumblebee
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.
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