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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.