Bombus Terrestris
- The Buff-Tailed Bumblebee

Bombus terrestris on Verbena

Buff-tailed bumblebee on Verbena - photograph taken last summer

Yesterday (18th Feb 2014), I saw my first Bombus terrestris queen of the year.  It was a relatively mild day, the sun was shining (as it is today), and the sky quite clear.  The bumblebee could easily have been missed, but when you are interested in all kinds of things ‘bee’, you tend to notice these low, quiet and gentle buzzing sounds.  I was taking our spaniel, Charlie for a walk, and immediately stopped and looked about me in the direction of the buzzing sound.  Then I saw her.


I have to say, she was not as large as Bombus terrestris queen bumblebees I have previously seen, but I am quite sure of the species, and that a queen is what she was, particularly due to the time of the year and also because of her behaviour.  The queens emerge from hibernation, and begin looking for food and nesting sites.  You can read more about the bumblebee lifecycle here.  This queen buff-tailed bumblebee was flying low around dense ivy and scrubby undergrowth, prospecting for a nest site.


The particular location she was searching in, is a great place for all types of bees.  Throughout spring, summer and autumn, this particular scrubby bank and the quiet country lane it occupies, is covered with perfect plants for bees (according to the time of year), including comfrey, brambles, forget-me-nots, dandelions, clover, wild roses, red dead nettle, gorse, bluebell, burdock, thistles, ragwort,  vetches, knapweed and poppy.  Then there are the gardens nearby – including mine, and a fabulous reservoir, woodland and nature reserve at the bottom of the lane.


Early Sources Of Food
I’m always thrilled to see the first bumblebee queens emerging from hibernation, but I always feel slightly nervous.  Immediately, I look about me to see if there are ample food sources to get them off to a good start.  This concerns me greatly, particularly because of climate change, although here in the UK, we seem to have a bit of a ‘mixed bag’ situation.  I’m seeing flowers in bloom that I wouldn’t expect to see, including campanulas and fuschsia in my garden.  Each year I wonder whether there will be surprises.

Unfortunately, the catkins on the trees down the lane are not yet ‘ripe’, nor are the pussy willows, the daffodils are not yet showing us their sunshine faces, and there is no pulmonaria in sight.  Similarly, I have forget-me-nots in my garden looking like they may open soon, but not just yet.

However, I am at least seeing flowers the Bombus terrestris are able to feed on, including crocus and Erica.   Of course, I cannot see what is available in other people’s gardens.  Perhaps there are mahonia, rhodendrons, blackthorn and others available (sadly, we lost our mahonia and rosemary bush, and due to the changes we made in our garden last year, we haven’t yet replaced them).


Buff-tailed bumblebees are polylectic, meaning they will forage on a large variety of plants, and are one of the species known to engage in nectar-robbing.  Buff-tailed bumblebees have short tongues.  Last year, I saw Bombus terrestris nectar robbing comfrey and managed to snap a picture (below).  There is a huge swathe of comfrey by a reservoir where I live, so it's bumblebee heaven in summer!

Recognising Bombus Terrestris
Queens can be about 20mm in length.  In comparison with Bombus lucorum, the tail is usually a creamy or dull off-white, rather than bright white.  The yellow bands can be very dark yellow – almost mustard-like, and sometimes quite narrow.

Workers are smaller than queens, with a white or whitish tail but with a ‘transitional’ zone between the tail and the black segment of the abdomen.

Males are similar to queens but smaller, but have ginger yellow hairs on the hind tibiae, becoming more yellow toward the top.  Very occasionally, all black specimens may be seen.

Buff-tailed bumblebees like to nest under the ground in abandoned mammal holes, with a tunnel entrance.


The colonies can be relatively large with up to 350 workers.  Some workers act as guard bees at the entrance of the tunnel, raising alarm and being ready to sting intruders if necessary.


The cuckoo-bee, Bombus vestalis, is known to target Bombus terrestrisRead more about cuckoo bumblebees.   


That the Bombus terrestris is the first bumblebee I have seen this year, is no surprise.  They are one of the first species to emerge, and are even known to be active through the winter in parts of the UK. 

Now, which species will I see next?  I expect it will be Bombus lucorum (White tailed bumblebee) or Bombus pratorum (Early bumblebee).  We shall see!

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