Species of the Month - May 2016: Red-Tailed Bumblebee

Red-tailed bumblebee (image: Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography)Red-tailed bumblebee (image: Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography)

This year, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust is running a new series taking a closer look at one key species of flora or fauna each month. For May, we are looking at the red-tailed bumblebeeā€¦

The red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

Red-tailed bumblebee drone (image: Rachel Scopes)

Each species of bumblebee has three forms, the large queen bees, and smaller female workers and male drones. The queen red-tailed bumblebee is a very large, black bumblebee with a big red bottom or 'tail'. Worker bees are smaller versions of the queens, whilst drones also have yellow hair on the face and two yellow bands on the thorax. The hairs on the pollen baskets, which are found on the back legs of females, are all black, but can be red in males.

Similar looking bees

Red-shanked carder bee (image: Rasbak - nlwikipedia)Another bumblebee – the red-shanked carder bee (Bombus ruderarius) – has a similar basic colour pattern. However this species is much rarer. The hairs on the pollen baskets are orange, not black and the abdomen is almost circular, whereas that of the red-tailed bumblebee is elongated.

Red-tailed cuckoo bee (image: Ivar Leidus - Wikipedia)The red-tailed cuckoo bee (Bombus rupestris) mimics both these bumblebees. It has a similar colour pattern, but is distinguished by the dark smokey wings and thicker, shinier and sparsely furred body. The male had faint grey bands on the abdomen. These bees emerge later, in May, when the bumblebees have already established their nests.

Where to see them

Red-tailed bumblebee (image: Penny Frith)The red-tailed bumblebee is widely distributed throughout Britain. They can be spotted in a wide range of habitats including open countryside and woodlands and is regularly seen in gardens.

Queens begin to emerge from hibernation in April and start to create a colony by laying a few eggs that hatch as workers. The queen builds her nest underground, often within an unoccupied mammal nest or hole. Males emerge later and live only for the summer – both they and the old queen die come the autumn. The new queens raised during the summer overwinter in ‘traditional’ hibernation sites - north-facing banks often in open woodland. The same sites may be used year after year by large numbers of queens.

An established nest may contain between 100 and 300 workers – a large population for our native bumblebee species.

How to help red-tailed bumblebees to thrive

Red-tailed bumblebee (image: Ed Marshall)Though currently a relatively common species, bumblebees are under threat from loss of habitat and the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides. Encourage bees into your garden by providing nectar-rich flower borders and fruit trees. Some bumblebee species are known to have a marked preference for visiting particular species of flower; however the red-tailed bumblebee collects pollen from a variety of plants though prefers flowers that have a ‘landing platform’ such as dandelions, daisies and clover – so don’t be too quick to mow your lawn when these appear! 

You could also create a bumblebee box using an upturned clay flower pot to provide a nesting site. Here’s how:

  • Half bury a 9"/225mm deep clay flowerpot in a dry, well drained, sheltered, sunny flower bed or hedge bottom so that the drainage hole in the base faces outwards.
  • Attach a short 5-6cm length of hosepipe (25-30 mm wide) to the drainage hole.
  • Add some bedding material such as pets’ bedding, dry grass, straw, or upholsterer’s cotton (not cotton wool.)
  • Cover over the rest of the pot with soil or vegetation so that the pipe sticks out.
  • Plant a 10cm tall stick upright nearby - bees may use this as a ’marking post’ to help them find their way back to the nest.

Get in touch

If you identify a red-tailed bumblebee – or any other species - please do let us know! You can submit records online at www.herefordshirewt.org, email them to us at records@herefordshirewt.co.uk or write to us at Lower House Farm, Ledbury Road, Hereford, HR1 1UT.

Red-tailed bumblebee (image: Penny Frith)