Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) — ID Guide

Ireland has 20 native species of bumblebee, but if you’re only starting to learn about these wonderful creatures there isn’t much need to worry about all of them. Some are very rare and others have restricted ranges which means that unless you make an effort to travel you’re highly unlikely to see them. The most commonly encountered species are the White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum), Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and the Heath Bumblebee (Bombus jonellus). Depending on your location you may also come across the Moss Carder Bee (Bombus muscorum) and if you happen to live in the southern half of the country, you are quite likely to come across the Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius). In Donegal I only seem to record B. lapidarius near species rich grassland near the coast.

I’ve recorded 7 species of bumblebee along this relatively small area, so you don’t always have to go to a National Park to get great results – Oisín Duffy
I’ve recorded 7 species of bumblebee along this relatively small area, so you don’t always have to go to a National Park to get great results – Oisín Duffy

Bumblebee identification can seem daunting to begin with, but it certainly gets much easier over time. Thankfully you can take a systematic approach to their identification. This will generally start with tail colour and then move on to the number of bands on the thorax and abdomen.

Basic Bumblebee anatomy – Oisín Duffy
Basic Bumblebee anatomy – Oisín Duffy

I had the idea to go over this post again as I spotted my first bumblebee of the year on Friday (29/01/2016). The species in question was a Queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (B. terrestris). Buff-tailed queens are large, noticeable and are most often the first species of bumblebee you will see emerge after (or during) winter. I spotted the individual pictured below in a rarely used car-park in Co. Waterford. I’ve been checking this location (over the winter) on a somewhat regular basis over the last 2 years as it usually produces my first queen of the year.

Queen Bombus terrestris feeding on Viburnum tinus, recorded on the 29/01/2016 – Oisín Duffy
Queen Bombus terrestris feeding on Viburnum tinus, recorded on the 29/01/2016 – Oisín Duffy

In terms of identifying the species the first thing you will want to look at is the tail colour, buff-tailed queens have “buff” coloured tails. In my experience this can range from a dirty white to an almost brown or orange colour and makes differentiating it from the White-tailed bumblebee (B. lucorum) relatively easy. The species also has two dark yellow or orange bands, one on the thorax and one of the abdomen (this also differs from the White-tailed Bumblebee which has very bright lemon yellow bands on the thorax and abdomen).

Identification features of a queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (B. terrestris) – Oisín Duffy
Identification features of a queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (B. terrestris) – Oisín Duffy

The workers of both B. terrestris and B. lucorum however are not as easy to distinguish from each other in the field and usually require DNA analysis to be conclusive.

Distinguishing features of the queens of both species – Oisín Duffy
Distinguishing features of the queens of both species – Oisín Duffy

If you have questions regarding this or any of my posts or ideas for new posts, feel free to get in touch with me @OshDuffy.

Oisín Duffy
About Oisín Duffy 23 Articles
Oisín Duffy is an ecologist and environmental educator with a special interest in the Flora of Ireland and Pollinators. He is the photographer and co-author of Biodiversity Ireland’s identification guide on “Trees and Shrubs”. He has a BA from NUIG and an MSc from NUIG and UL. Oisín is an active biological recorder, and current Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) Vice-county recorder for East Donegal (H34) and participates in a number of recording schemes run by the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), Bat Conservation Ireland (BCI) and others. In 2016, Oisín worked in conjunction with the National Biodiversity Data Centre to develop a plant monitoring scheme for Ireland. During the Summer of 2016, he toured Ireland giving workshops for the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. His most recent work has been as a photographer and author of the “Wildflowers in South Armagh”.

4 Comments on Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) — ID Guide

  1. Great article Oisin, cheers for the contribution! loved the photos and the fact you found your first queen in a rarely used carpark in Waterford! Really illustrates the fact when nature is given the chance it can flourish anywhere, and you just have to keep your eyes peeled always!

    • Thanks a million Cormac, I really appreciate it.
      The odd thing about the car park is that there’s only a few food sources there during the winter, Ivy along the tree line, planted Heather and the Viburnum mentioned above. This makes looking for them quite easy, it’d be amazing to see what else would turn up to the car park if there was some pollinator friendly wildflowers planted or even just the green space let go a little bit wild.

  2. Hopefully since it’s rarely used it will be allowed go a bit wilder! Do you know if local councils and county councils have any specific plans or guidelines to promote the planting of pollinator friendly wildflowers? Or if not is there groups lobby for such plans?

    • With the car park in question I believe it’s owned by a hotel and used as an overflow car park. There’s a few raised curbed areas where they’ve planted some shrubs and a few plants, but unfortunately the very small amount of green space appears to be cut on a regular basis.
      The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is doing a great deal to make people more aware of pollinators in general and ways they can benefit these incredibly important creatures.

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