The NHBS Guide to UK Bumblebee Identification

Bumblebee by James Johnstone via Flickr

Bumblebees are familiar, much-loved animals in Britain. Together with ants and wasps, these winged insects are in the order Hymenoptera. The Latin name Bombus, meaning to buzz or boom, is wholly appropriate for bumblebees, who are frequently heard before they are seen.

Keeping an eye on brambles and purple flowering plants – both of which are particularly popular with bees – can be very productive when out on an insect hunt or daily stroll. At first glance, bumblebees may all look very similar, but take a closer look and a range of colours and stripe patterns can be spotted.

There are 24 species of bumblebee found in Britain. Seven of these are particularly widespread so are aptly named the ‘Big 7’ by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.  Due to this prevalence, these seven species are a great place to start when learning to identify bees.

The colouration of the different species is the easiest way to identify bumblebees; particularly the colour of the tail and the number and colour of stripes. In our guide we have sorted the seven species by tail colour (or overall colour for the common carder) so that easily confused species can be directly compared.

Bumblebees with white or buff tails
White-tailed bumblebee by OldManDancing via Flickr

White-tailed bumblebee – Bombus lucorum

Tail: As expected from the name, this bumblebee has a pure white tail.

Banding: Two bands of bright yellow, often described as lemon-yellow.

Other: Males of this species can be identified by the presence of additional yellow hairs on their faces.

Buff-tailed bumblebee by Jonas Myrenås via Flickr

Buff-tailed bumblebee – Bombus terrestris

Tail: Named for the orangey beige, or “buff” tail of their queen. Males and workers of this species have white tails and so are very challenging to distinguish from the white-tailed bumblebee. In some males, a thin band of yellow/buff can be seen at the top of the tail, which is absent in the white-tailed species.

Banding: Has two bands of yellow, similar to the white-tailed species. The bands on a buff-tailed bumblebee are often more of an orange-yellow than seen on the white-tailed bumblebee – although these can fade later in the season.

Garden bumblebee by gailhampshire via Flickr

Garden bumblebee – Bombus hortorum

Tail: Bright white tail that tends to go further up the body than the lucorum species.

Banding: Has three stripes of yellow unlike the other species with white tails. Although, this can sometimes appear as one band around the “collar” and another wider one around the “waist”/midriff.

Other: The garden bumblebee has an incredibly long tongue, the longest of any of our species in the UK. At up to 2cm, its tongue is the same length as its entire body. This impressive adaptation allows these bees to reach the nectar in deep flowers such as foxgloves.

Tree bumblebee by Orangeaurochs via Flickr

Tree bumblebee – Bombus hypnorum

Tail: White.

Banding: The tree bumblebee has an entirely ginger-brown thorax, with a black abdomen. This colouration makes it the most distinct of the pale tailed bumblebee species.

Other: Unlike the other six species, these bees like to nest in trees and are commonly found in bird nest boxes. The tree bumblebee is a fairly new addition to the UK, with the first individuals recorded in 2001.

Bumblebees with red tails
Male (left) and female (right) Red-tailed bumblebees by Donald Hobern and S. Rae via Flickr

Red-tailed bumblebee – Bombus lapidarius

Tail: Very bright red or dark orange tail that is difficult to miss.

Banding: Unique in that the females have no banding, they are just jet black other than the tail. The smaller males, however, have two slim yellow bands and yellow facial hairs.

Early bumblebee by Gertjan van Noord via Flickr

Early bumblebee – Bombus pratorum

Tail: Has an orange-red tail. However it is generally smaller and less bright than in the lapidarius species.

Banding: The early bumblebee has two yellow stripes on males and females.

Other: Smaller and fluffier in appearance than the lapidarius species.

Bumblebees with ginger bodies
Common carder bee by stanze via Flickr

Common carder bee – Bombus pascuorum

The common carder is similar in colour to the tree bumblebee – orangey brown. However, with this species the colour continues across its entire body and tail. Some individuals have darker bands across their abdomens, especially later in the season as the orange begins to fade

Other: There are two other species of carder bee in the UK that are orange all over, however, the common carder is the most often seen across Britain.

Find out more

If this guide has piqued your curiosity in bumblebees we recommend the following products so that you too can get outside, identifying species and learning more about these important pollinators…

FSC Guide to Bees of Britain
#171559

This lightweight fold-out guide shows a variety of bee species, including the ones mentioned above and will provide a useful reminder of their identification features when out in the field. Also includes additional information such as UK distribution.

 

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland
#245313

The ultimate guide – this book provides a comprehensive introduction to the ecology of bees and details of all 275 species found in Great Britain and Ireland.

 

 

Bumblebees: An Introduction
#241722

This Bumblebee Conservation Trust book fills that gap by introducing these charismatic species to a wider audience. Written by Trust staff, it covers bumblebee biology and also has an essential identification guide to all UK bumblebee species, packed with over 250 colour photographs

 

A Sting in the Tale
#211475

Dave Goulson’s The Sunday Times bestseller has inspired thousands of readers to share his excitement for bees and develop a passion to protect and conserve them.

 

 

Opticron Hand Lens
#210081

A hand lens is an essential part of your naturalist kit. We offer many different magnifications and options to suit all budgets.

Hand-Held Magnifier
#202230

The size of this magnifier and its non-slip plastic handle makes it particularly suitable for use by families and children.

The NHBS Guide to UK Small Mammal Identification  

Harvest Mouse by Charlie Marshall via Flickr

Small mammals are charismatic animals, but often elusive. They are rarely seen as more than a passing glimpse of a small scurrying creature. Although sadly often viewed as pests, small mammals are an important part of our ecosystems.

In this blog we will focus on some of the most common, native species of rodent and insectivore in the UK, providing key characteristics that will help you to identify them in the field.

Mice

There are four species of mice in the UK. All have relatively large eyes and ears and long scaly tails with little or no hair.

Wood mouse by Vince via Flickr
Wood mouse/Field mouse– Apodemus sylvaticus

Identification: The wood mouse is a stereotypical’ mouse in terms of appearance and has a chestnut-brown back and white belly. Long tail, large ears and big eyes. Moves quickly by hopping/jumping.

Size: 8-10cm with a very long tail of up to 10cm.

Habitat: Often found in woodland and fields but also common in a variety of other habitats. Generally the most often caught in small mammal surveys.

House mouse by Richard Adams via Flickr

 

House mouse – Mus musculus

Identification: Greybrown all over including the undersides.

Size: 7-9cm with a tail of up to 10cm.

Habitat: Commonly associated with houses, buildings and barns, although also found in the countryside. This species is one of the more commonly spotted due to its cohabitation with humans.

Harvest Mouse by Charlie Marshall via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harvest mouse – Micromys minutus

Identification: A very small mouse with golden fur and white undersides. Its long tail is prehensile and can be used as an extra ‘limb’ to hold onto vegetation as it climbs.

Size: The UK’s smallest rodent; roughly 5-7cm in length.

Habitat: Lives in long vegetation such as reed beds, marshes and roadside verges. Builds small, round nests made of intertwined grass stalks.

Did you know? The average adult harvest mouse weighs roughly the same as a two pence piece!

Yellow-necked mouse by Teemu Lehtinen via Flickr
Yellow-necked mouse – Apodemus flavicollis

Identification: This species looks almost the same as the wood mouse in appearance, except that the yellow-brown colouration on its back continues around in a band across the neck.

Size: 9.5-12cm, very slightly larger than the wood mouse. Tail 8-12cm in length.

Habitat: Woodland, hedgerows and gardens; range is restricted mainly to southern Britain.

Voles

In comparison to mice, voles have much shorter and more rounded snouts. They also tend to have smaller ears and eyes in proportion to their body size. There are three species of vole native to the UK: two of these species – the bank and field vole – appear very similar and are easily confused.

Bank vole by Peter Trimming via Flickr
Bank Vole – Myodes glareolus

Identification: Red-brown upper coat with a pale cream/grey underside. The bank vole’s tail is about half the length of its body. This is an important distinguishing factor for comparison with the field vole which has a proportionately shorter tail.

Size: 9-11cm, tail length 3-7cm.

Habitat: The bank vole is often found in hedgerows, heathland, grassland and woodland, as well as in more urban areas.

Field vole by Jeremy Halls via Flickr
Field Vole – Microtus agrestis

Identification: The fur of the field vole is more yellow-brown than the bank vole. It is often described as ‘cooler’ in colour. The underside is creamy-grey. Its tail is about a third of the length of its body (shorter proportionately when compared to the bank vole). For this reason it is also known as the short-tailed field vole.

Size: 9-12 cm in length (not including tail).

Habitat: Ungrazed grasslands and areas of tussock are the preferred habitat, although this adaptable mammal will find a home wherever grass is available.

Did you know? The field vole is estimated to be the most abundant mammal in the UK, although it is rarely seen. Look out for small round tunnels in areas of long grass. You may even find a ‘lawn’ at the entrance with shortened grass and piles of grass cuttings.

Water vole by Peter Trimming via Flickr
Water Vole Arvicola amphibious

Identification: Dark brown fur and a hairy tail which is about half the length of the head and body. Characteristic bright yellow teeth.

Size: Up to 22cm in length excluding the tail. Roughly rat-sized (double the size of the field and bank voles).

Habitat: As the name suggests, this vole spends much of its life in the water. They live in burrows alongside river canals and are most often spotted swimming.

Did you know? When startled, water voles dive into the water making a characteristic ‘plop’ sound. So, be sure to keep an ear out when walking alongside rivers.

Shrews

There are four species of shrew native to the UK, although only three are found on the mainland. The other – the greater white-toothed shrew – is found only on islands such as Guernsey, Alderney and Herm.

Shrews tend to be smaller than most other species of small mammal found in the UK, and have a distinctive long pointed snout and very small eyes and ears.

Common shrew by Jo Garbutt via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common shrew – Sorex araneus

Identification: Fur is three-toned, transitioning from dark brown on the back to paler brown to white on its undersides. The common shrew has a tail which is roughly half the length of the body; this is shorter, proportionally, than that of the pygmy shrew.

Size: 4-8cm in length, tail 2.5-4.5cm.

Habitat Widespread across a variety of habitats including gardens, hedgerows, grassland and woodland.

Did you know? Common shrews have a very high metabolism and must eat every 2-3 hours in order to survive.

Pygmy shrew by Andrew via Flickr
Pygmy shrew – Sorex minutus

Identification Two-toned fur going from a grey-brown upper to an off-white belly. The pygmy shrew has a longer and wider tail in proportion to its body when compared with the common shrew; roughly two-thirds of its body length.

Size: 4-6cm in length, tail 3-5cm.

Habitat: Widespread across a variety of habitats including hedgerows, grassland and woodland.

Water shrew by Ulrike & Jörg via Flickr
Water Shrew – Neomys fodiens

Identification: Black/dark brown fur on top, with a very contrasting pale grey underside. Often have little silver ear tufts and white hairs around the eyes.

Size: 6-10cm, the UK’s largest shrew species. Tail 4.5-7.5cm.

Habitat: Usually found near streams and wetlands. If you see a shrew swimming, it is most likely this species! They even swim underwater to hunt for prey.

Did you know? The water shrew is a venomous mammal. Its saliva can paralyse even larger prey such as frogs and newts.

Other

Hazel dormouse by Frank Vassen via Flickr
Hazel DormouseMuscardinus avellanarius

Identification: Golden fur, big ears and eyes. The most characteristic feature is their incredibly fluffy tail. This means that they are sometimes mistaken for a young squirrel.

Size: 6-9cm, tail 5.5-7cm.

Habitat: Dormice are arboreal, meaning that they spend most of their lives in trees, although they return to the ground to hibernate during winter. Despite their name, hazel trees are not a habitat requirement – although they are often preferred. Found in coniferous, deciduous and mixed woodland.

Did you know? The hazel dormouse is not technically a true mouse. They are related to both mice and squirrels but are classified in their own separate family.

Recommended reading/guides:

How to Find and Identify Mammals
#210208

Provides a solid grounding in mammal identification skills. Includes excellent illustrations of mammals, their tracks and signs and also discusses survey methods using the latest techniques and technologies.

 

 

Live Trapping Small Mammals: A Practical Guide
#248012

Provides practical advice on trapping small mammals.

 

 

 

Guide to the Land Mammals of Britain
#200858

This laminated pamphlet is produced by the Field Studies Council and contains images of all of Britain’s land-based mammals. Provides a useful overview and aid to identification.

 

 

A Guide to British Mammal Tracks and Signs
#128853

This Field Studies Council guide is the perfect solution to identifying the presence of mammals from their tracks and signs. Footprints, dropping and feeding remains are all included in this helpful laminated pamphlet.

 

Water Vole Conservation Handbook
#196267

This handbook aims to improve the understanding and awareness of the requirements of water voles.