The Bees of Britain and How to Identify Them

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An organised flower holiday in Britain is the perfect opportunity to master the skill of identifying the many bee species. While it is regarded as a challenging skill to master when first starting out, with the aid of an expert guide and a few key features to look out for, it can become a much more straightforward activity.

Banding Patterns

This tip applies in particular to white-tailed species. By taking a closer look at the bands on a bee, identification can sometimes very quickly be ascertained. For example, the Buff-tailed Bumblebee has two yellow bands, whilst the Garden Bumblebee has three.

This is a relatively straightforward way to identify a species without any trouble, and as such is a useful place to start. The number of bands can vary from one to three.

Tail Colour

The insects can be grouped into three categories, based on the colour of their tail. These include white-tailed, red-tailed and ‘uniform-tailed’. The uniform-tailed will display a tail the same colour as the rest of its body. More often than not, they will be ginger in colour, and so are very easily spotted.


Identifying whether or not the insect under examination is a queen, male or worker is naturally a very helpful step towards discovering its species. As such it is a good idea to consider this as soon as the bands and tail colour have been identified.

Cuckoo vs. True

The Cuckoo Bumblebee has hairy hind legs, dark wing membranes and no pollen basket. In addition, it can be distinguished from the ‘true’ species by taking a closer look at its face, which is likely to be short. A long face is a clear sign that it is not the Cuckoo species.

Britain’s Species

In total, over 270 species have been identified in Britain. However, with the differences in appearance that exist between queen, male and workers, there is an even wider range of colours, shapes and sizes to look out for. Fewer than 10 species comprise around 95-99% of the total population of the insect in Britain.

The Banded White-Tailed Bumblebee can be spotted from March to November, and is considered to represent the archetypal version, with its easily-identifiable yellow and black bands.

Another species to look out for on the itinerary of a flower holiday in the UK is the Early Bumblebee, with its distinctive orange tail, and yellow facial hair on males. The Tree Bumblebee can be spotted from March to July, with its white tail and black abdomen, whilst the Brown Carder is ‘uniform-tailed’ and ginger in colour. The Small-Scissor is Britain’s smallest species, whilst the distinctive Ashy Mining is black with ash-coloured bands, and is most easily spotted nearby footpaths and sunlit walkways.

There are a number of factors that can affect how easy it is to identify the UK’s many species and types of bees. For example, in the later months of the year, they can be become sun-bleached and worn, which serves to alter their colour and make identification slightly more difficult. While participants on a well organised flower holiday will have the benefit of an experienced naturalist guide, the above tips serve as a helpful starting point.
About author: Desiree Michels

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in wildlife. With a passionate interest in botanical species, Marissa chooses the expert-led flower holiday itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of flora and fauna in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.


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