ZooSoc Takeover: Learn your A, Bee, Cs

Here in Ireland we have 20 species of bumblebee made up of 14 species of True Bumblebee and 6 species of Cuckoo Bumblebee. Cuckoo bumblebees look very similar to true bees but don’t form colonies. Instead they invade a nest, kill the queen and trick the workers into rearing the cuckoo’s larvae. Cuckoo bumblebees will not be dealt with here.

The first thing to do when identifying a true bumblebee is to check out the colour of its tail (last part of the abdomen). Bumblebee tails here come in four varieties, each of which will be dealt with in its own section:

  1. White tail – 4 species* – Go to question 1 (page 3).
  2. Red tail – 5 species – Go to question 5 (page 4).
  3. Ginger tail – 1 species – Go to question 9 (page 5).
  4. Blonde tail – 2 species – Go to question 10 (page 6).

*Although ‘white tail’ here deals with four species, there are actually six. Bombus lucorum has two closely related sister species (Bombus cryptarum and Bombus magnus) which can only be reliably distinguished from B. lucorum using DNA analysis.

This diagram from James Carolan (NUI Maynooth) and colleagues (including the All Ireland Pollinator Plan’s Úna Fitzpatrick) shows how difficult the three “cryptic” white tailed species are to distinguish. These specimen bumblebees were identified by professionals based on very tiny differences in morphology but their DNA told a different story.  The full paper can be read here.

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