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So-called for their ‘bumbling’ flight, the sight and sound of bumblebees droning from flower to flower is a quintessential and familiar part of a summer’s day.

A buff-tailed bumblebee with two yellow bands and a white tail with buff markings feeds on pollen from a purple flower. Known as 'nectar robbers', buff-tailed bumblebees bite the base of a flower to reach its nectar.

Bee facts

Scientific name: Bombus

Family: Apidae

Diet: Nectar and pollen

Predators: Birds, spiders, wasps, and flies will prey on individual bumblebees. Large predators like badgers can dig up and consume an entire colony

Size: 1.5 to 2.5cm

Weight: 0.04g to 0.60g. Queens can reach 0.85g

Lifespan: Queens live for one year

The humble bumblebee

Bumblebees are social creatures living in a nest ruled by the queen bee. These colonies are smaller than those of other bees, with as few as 50 bees in a nest. Over time, they’ve been called ‘humble bees’ and ‘dumbledors’. Since World War II, these endearing insects have almost exclusively been known as bumblebees.

They’re large and furry, from the same order as sawflies, ants, and wasps. With a distinctively loud buzz, bumblebees feed on pollen and nectar. However, unlike honeybees, bumblebees do not make honey. Instead, they store their food for winter hibernation.

Bumblebees are important agricultural pollinators – and population declines are a cause for concern.

Bumblebees and our canals

Our network, with its hedges, grassland, and scrub, provides an excellent foraging habitat for a whole range of nectar-feeding insects, including bumblebees.

It's essential that we retain wildflowers along our network, particularly along the towpaths. Thankfully, we have many volunteers who give up their time to help improve the natural environment of our canals and rivers by planting wildflowers and surveying hedges.

How to identify a bumblebee

There are around 270 bee species in Britain, of which 24 are bumblebees. You’ll find seven types widespread across most of England and Wales.

  • Red-tailed bumblebee

    So-called for their red ‘tails’ that cover nearly half the abdomen, queens and workers are large and jet black. Males are smaller with a yellow stripe. You might find red-tailed bumblebees along our canals, in gardens, farmlands, and woodland.

  • Early bumblebee

    Early bumblebees – or ‘early nesting’ – are small with bright yellow bands across the body and an orange tail. These bees begin their colony cycle in February, earlier than most other species – hence its name.

    You can find early bees in all kinds of UK habitats. They’re vital pollinators of berries and soft fruits.

  • Common carder bumblebee

    Common carder bumblebees are fluffy and brown/orange in colour. They sometimes have darker bands on their abdomen. Males, queens, and workers all look similar – although queens are distinguished by the cream colouring of their thorax. Emerging early in spring, they feed on flowers throughout the summer months and well into November.

    They are one of the more common bee species. You might find one in a wide variety of habitats, like meadows, pastures, ditches, embankments, roads, fields, gardens, parks, and forests.

  • White-tailed bumblebee

    White-tailed bumblebees are black with two yellow stripes and a white ‘tail’ and are often mistaken for buff-tailed or garden bumblebees. Males tend to be almost completely yellow.

  • Buff-tailed bumblebee

    Buff-tailed bumblebees are the largest of the common bumblebees. They have two yellow bands – one near the head and another lower on the abdomen. Queens have a buff-coloured ‘tail’, while workers have white tails with a slight buff. Males have black facial hair.

  • Garden bumblebee

    Garden bumblebees are large with long tongues and long faces. They have three yellow bands and a white tail. Males have black hair around the mandibles.

    Garden bumblebees tend to be scruffier than other bees with even hair length.

  • Tree bumblebee

    Tree bumblebees are fuzzy with ginger hairs on their thorax. They have a black abdomen and a white tail. As the name suggests, tree bumblebees are most commonly found in woodland.

What do bumblebees eat?

Bumblebees feed on nectar and pollen, using colour and spatial relationships to identify the flowers from which to feed. They use long, hairy tongues to collect the liquid.

How do bumblebees breed?

Bumblebees have an annual life cycle.

A queen bee will emerge from winter hibernation to build a nest and lay its eggs in the spring. Female worker bees hatch from these eggs to help expand the nest and find food.

By mid-summer, the nest might contain hundreds of worker bees. The queen will start laying both male and female eggs. Female bees are given extra food to become future queens. In the late summer, female and male bees will leave to mate. New queens hibernate underground before emerging to establish their own nest.

The male worker bees and the old queen die in the autumn.

Where do bumblebees live?

Bumblebees live in hives, anywhere they can find flowers to feed on. They might build their nests in underground holes made by larger animals or above ground in tree cavities, unoccupied birdhouses, or beneath rocks. You might find a beehive in your garden, in farmland, woodland, hedgerows, or heathland.

Tips to spot bumblebees

Bumblebees are common along our canals and in gardens and parks. Here are a few tips to spot bumblebees.

What's the best time of day to spot bumblebees?

Bumblebees start their day with the sun, peaking in the afternoon when temperatures rise. Rain, wind, or poor weather might prevent bees from working during the day. But, generally speaking, bumblebees keep to their schedule.

What's the best time of year to spot bumblebees?

A sign spring is coming, you’ll easily spot a bumblebee in your garden or along the canal anytime from February to autumn.

Threats to bumblebees

While bumblebees are widespread in the UK, populations have declined in recent years. Bees feed exclusively on pollen and nectar, and there are far fewer flowers in the countryside than there once were.

Hedges and marshland have disappeared, and unimproved grasslands rich in wildflowers have been almost entirely swept away, replaced by silage and cereal fields.

Asian hornets also present a threat to bumblebees. Find out more about Asian hornets and how to report a sighting.

Other species to look out for

Family nature guide 2019

Download your free nature guide

Identify footprints and read fascinating facts about the creatures who make their homes along our canals and rivers

Last Edited: 14 June 2024

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