All About Pollinators Series: Bumble Bee Identification

By Mary Brennan, HF&G Volunteer and Ohio Volunteer Pollinator Specialist

Hello again!

Eastern Carpenter bee- Xylocopa virginica

So, did you see any Bumble Bees this week? Aren’t they grand? I love how some have hair that looks like velvet while others look like they are definitely having a “bad hair day.” If you were fortunate enough to see that, and the different color patterns,  you are well on the way to being able to do some first-class identification! I have always found that once I can get to that level of recognition, Bumbles seem much more like our friends – which of course they are! First of all, I’d like to point out that there is another bee that looks very similar to The Bombus family, and they are Carpenter bees (Zylocopa, meaning “wood worker”). Perhaps you have seen them–they are big…about an inch long, but with the distinct difference of having hairless abdomens – or “shiney hineys.” We’ll be talking more about them later because they too are pollinators and deserve their own story!

OK, so now we can differentiate between Carpenter Bees and Bumble Bees- let’s look at the Bumble Bees that you are most likely to see. The area that we’ll be looking at mostly is the thorax (2nd section) and the abdomen (last section) which has six T (tergal) bands, males have seven, and we will be noticing the coloration of the hairs! OK, here we go!

  • Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) has a yellow thorax with possibly a few black hairs mixed in between the wings, and the T1 is also yellow. T2 is black as is the rest of the abdomen.

    Common Eastern Bumble bee
  • Two-spotted Bumble Bee (Bombus bimaculatus): The thorax and T1 are mostly yellow with a black spot between the base of the wings. T2 is usually yellow with a yellow “W” in the middle – thus looking like two spots joined together. The tail is black and the hair is long– looks like a “bad hair day.” Males can have some yellow hairs further down the abdomen but that “W” on T2 is still there.

    Two-spotted Bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus)
  • Brown-belted Bumble (Bombus griseocollis): This bee has a thorax and T1 mostly yellow, a black spot between the wing bases and T2 is yellow, tan (a friend calls the color “golden retriever” tan) or brown. The tail is black and the hair is short.

    brown belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis)

Keep looking at bumble bees–watch what they are doing, how they travel from place to place, what flowers they land on, and even how long they stay at a flower. Many times you can even see their tongues (which are usually medium length.) Another ability they have– to get pollen from some flowers they can vibrate their bodies or “buzz” pollinate, shaking the pollen onto themselves. The first time I saw that I thought the bee was cold and shivering–and then I remembered, “Wow, it’s Buzz pollinating.” The sound is a very quick, high pitched buzz (middle C I’ve been told). Once you hear it you will always be able to identify it! They are generalist, meaning they will go to many different types of flowers, but when I was at Holden Arboretum this week there were lots of bees on the lavender, the bee balm (Monarda) and the cone flowers. If you’re really patient you may even see one push the pollen from front to their back. If you see those “saddle bags” then that is a female. Notice what color the pollen is, which may give you an idea about what flowers they’ve been visiting!

Lastly, boy bees don’t have stingers, and girl Bumbles do have stingers but are busy collecting food, so unless you bother them they most likely will not bother you!