Bumblebees and Cuckoo Bees in Nottinghamshire
Bumblebees are known to everyone and the various species' make up one of the most familiar group of insects. Whilst some bees are solitary, Bumblebees are social insects, forming small colonies during the Spring and Summer months. Unlike some bees which nest above ground, all the Bumblebees featured here, form nests at (or below) ground level, but this page now features three Cuckoo Bees, which are cleptoparasites of two of our most familiar Bumblebee species.
Brief life history

There are three castes within the colony - queen (fertile female) drone (male) and worker (infertile female). After pairing in the late Summer and Autumn, only the young queens survive through the Winter to start new colonies the following Spring. In more recent years, there has developed an increasing trend for new colonies to be started by the queens of some species, the same Autumn after pairing. Both Queens and workers are now sometimes recorded during mild Winter days in the south-west UK, but Winter records in Nottinghamshire, still seem few. It seems that a favourite nectar source at this time of year are the flowers of Mahonia and Winter flowering Heathers.

Nests are typically rather small, but colonies can number several hundred workers towards the end of the Summer. Nest sites vary between species, but old mice nests below ground and within grass tussocks are favourite locations. The nest cells are clumped together, rather than the more architecturally constructed nests and cells of Wasps.

  The Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) confusion

The familiar Honey Bee should be well known to most people and there should be no confusion in the identification of any Bumblebee with the Honey Bee - yet it does occur.

It seems that a complete lack of awareness or understanding among the public, regarding size, shape and colour differences between the two, is to blame.

The recent arrival and subsequent spread of Bombus hypnorum (the Tree-nesting Bumblebee) in the UK, has led to a dramatic increase in local Beekeepers being called out to deal with swarms of bees, only to find that the majoprity of swarms involve Bombus hypnorum nests.

95% of all cases of swarming bees reported by the public, actually relate to Bumblebees, so please check carefully before calling in your local Beekeeping Association.

Cuckoo Bees

Cuckoo Bees previously had the latin name Psithyrus, but now come under Bombus. They are so called because of their habit of finding a nest of their host species and infiltrating it. Cuckoo Bees have no worker caste, only males (Drones) in late Summer and Autumn and females (queens) which are most frequently seen in Spring.

  Only the young Cuckoo Bee queens over-winter and emerge later than their hosts the following Spring, to take over a nest of their host species. The existing queen is usually killed and the Cuckoo Bee queen takes over the colony and produces her own eggs, which the existing workers tend, till new male and female Cuckoo Bees emerge during the Summer months.

Identification of some species is extremely difficult by photographs. Several species are supposedly common across much of the UK.

Bumble/Cuckoo Bee identification

Bumblebee identification is quite difficult. The more photographs you take, or the more Bumblebees you look at - the more variation between adults of the same species you see. However, the species' shown on this page are all common throughout the lowlands of the UK and whilst some similar species can only be separated by careful examination, most are relatively straight forward and we have included some of the key identification features for each species.

1. One of the key features of Cuckoo Bees, is the complete absence of pollen baskets. On normal Bumble Bees, the hind tibia is completely bare and shiny (see right hand photograph) whilst the tibia of all Cuckoo Bees are hairy.

2. Single orange or yellow band on thorax and with no other large orange or yellow band on the abdomen, is distinctive of some Cuckoo Bee species.

3. Single thin yellow/orange band or patches on abdomen, as in the Cuckoo Bees B. bohemicus and B. vestalis, compared to B. hortorum on the right.

A note on Bombus hypnorum in Nottinghamshire

Bombus hypnorum (commonly called the Tree Bumblebee) is the latest species to colonise the UK, first arriving back in 2001. It spread rapidly north and finally reached Nottinghamshire in 2009, when it was first recorded from Worksop. Other Nottinghamshire records quickly followed in the early part of 2010 and by 2012, this Bumblebee is fast becoming one of the commonest species. The two NBN Gateway maps, show the spread of B. hypnorum in the past few years.

Bombus hypnorum UK distribution. .... NBN Gateway September 2011   Bombus hypnorum UK distribution. .... NBN Gateway March 2012
Garden Bumblebee Bombus hortorum (Linnaeus, 1761)
Distinguishable by the three yellow bands (two in the thorax and one on the abdomen) and white tail. Only the queen is illustrated.
Red-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lapidarius (Linnaeus, 1758)
A very easy species to identify. The queen and workers are entirely black, with a large red patch at the tip of the abdomen. Males have two yellow bands on the thorax and the red tail. The Queen is illustrated.
White-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lucorum sensu lato
Note:- Bombus lucorum sensu lato is a species complex encompassing B. lucorum, B. cryptarum and B. magnus, which cannot be reliably distinguished from each other.

B. lucorum is similar to B.terrestis, and best distinguished by it's more lemon yellow banding, rather than the typical darker yellow banding of B. terrestis . There are two yellow bands (one on both thorax and abdomen) and the end of the abdomen is pure white. The distinctly yellow male is shown below right. Queen (left) and male (right) are illustrated.

Common Carder Bumblebee Bombus pascuorum (Scopoli, 1763)
Unlikely to be confused with any other Bumblebee found in Nottinghamshire, but there are much rarer (and similar) Carder Bees elsewhere in the UK. Thorax and end of abdomen orange/brown. Worker (left) and queen (right) are illustrated.
Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum (Linnaeus, 1758)
Bombus hypnorum finally reached Nottinghamshire in 2009 and other records quickly followed in the early part of 2010. This is a distinctive tri-coloured Bumblebee and easily recognised, standing out clearly from the still commoner Bombus pascuorum. Its spread is continuing at a rate and it is fast becoming one of our commonest Bumblebees. 2011 and 2012 has seen a dramatic increase in the number of sightings based on our own records alone.
Early Nesting Bumblebee Bombus pratorum (Linnaeus, 1761)
One (usually) two yellow bands with the end of the abdomen orange. Often nests very early in the year and we have seen workers as early as late February and early March on Sallow flowers. Only the queen is illustrated.
Buff-tailed Bumblebee Bombus terrestris (Linnaeus, 1758)
B.terrestris is only likely to be confused with the similar B. lucorum (see above identification differences) In B.terrestris, the end of the abdomen is usually buff coloured and generally appears less white or as distinct as that of B. lucorum. Only the queen is illustrated.
Bombus barbutellus (Kirby, 1802)
Bombus barbutellus seems to be an uncommon Cuckoo Bee species in Nottinghamshire. This Queen was photographed in an open grassy area of Sherwood Forest CP in April 2010, but although it's ID was suspected as being B. jonellus at the time, later confirmation of the correct ID came in early 2011. Bombus barbutellus is a Cuckoo Bee of B. hortorum.
Bombus bohemicus (Seidl, 1837)
Bombus bohemicus queens take over the nests of the White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) B. bohemicus is visually almost identical to Bombus vestalis, but the thin yellow band/line of hairs seperating white from black sections on the abdomen, are a slightly darker yellow and more restricted in bohemicus than vestalis.
Bombus rupestris (Fabricius, 1793)
Bombus rupestris takes over the nests of the Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) It's wings are much darker than B. lapidarius and it shows a typical southerly UK distribution.
Bombus vestalis (Geoffroy in Fourcroy, 1785)
Bombus vestalis takes over the nests of the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and shows a more southerly distribution in the UK.
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