Bumbling matters: identify that bumble bee


The bees are floating, here in Britain. They’re high on life.

This summer has been benign until now, with mediterranean sunshine and the occasional heavy shower; and every pollen-producing flower  is one big party. Lavender bush in your garden? Go and take a look. It’s like a bee opium den. Bees hanging out on gorgeous blousy overblown blooms, high as kites.

I was trundling across the top of the iron age fort when I found one such bee. It demanded you stop and look because it was hugging a luscious purple thistle like a wino hugs a bottle of whisky. It was enamoured of it. It was taking long, lazy drafts and I surmise that if I had tried to take that flower of that bee at that moment it would have taken a large crowbar.

I took a picture.

I have been taking a lot of pictures of bees lately because right now they gaze in a spaced-out manner at the lens and say “cheese”. And it has come to my attention, finally, after half a lifetime on this planet, that there are more kinds of bees in heaven and earth than I had previously dreamt of.

To start with, every bee rolls its compound eyes every time some vacuous wildlife tourist says “It’s making pollen so that it can go home and make us honey!”

The International Honeybee Collective would like it known that only honeybees do this, and a large number of bees are not honeybees.  The whole ‘bees co-operate together’ thing is a little askew, too, following pro-honeybee propaganda by Dreamworks: honeybees do, it’s true, and they live in great sociable hives which have been cultivated by man since Egyptian times.

But the rest have small comfy hobbit-like holes in the ground and prefer a solitary life.

So before you pause in your walk to marvel at Nature’s professional pollinators, perhaps it is only courteous to be well-informed as to precisely which bee you are gawping at.

Of course, you have to get it to show its bottom.

I issue this warning because I neglected to get the bee on the thistle to show its backside. It’s not the first thing which occurs to you when you’re nature-gazing, marvelling at the complexity of mother earth and her inhabitants. But the best bee identifier on the web starts with the bee’s bottom, and if you can’t see it, you’re sunk.

You can find the Natural History Museum’s identfier for all British species  here. And it starts with everything below the waist, another part of the anatomy I had no idea bees possessed. So I got out my bee pictures:

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And was there a bee bottom in sight? There was not.

Looking back over my phototgraphs from Kew gardens, the bees were all bottom-baring. I was able to identify thic chap:


And this lavender lover, despite his blur:


And now I am a bee-geek. A bombus-spotter. I cannot see a bee without peering impertinently at its bottom and scurying off to identify it. I am bee-P-C: a politically correct bee appreciator.

And there has never been a better Summer for it.


47 thoughts on “Bumbling matters: identify that bumble bee

  1. I don’t think that I have ever seen so many bees or butterflies as I have this year – it is heartening.
    At the moment I am having a medieval bee skep handmade for an alcove in our drystone wall – it is for solitary bees. I only learnt this year that there were so many different bees in the UK – around 250 species. 24 species of bumblebee, 225 species of solitary bee, and just the single honeybee species.

  2. I am on my way out to the garden to spot bees’ bottoms. I was one of the fools that thought they were all working for the mighty bee collective. This explains why lone bees hover around the exposed stones of our back wall at the beginning of summer. They’re checking out the area for a summer lease,

  3. You can imagine the excitement you’ve generated over here, Kate, with your bee spotting activity, Actually, I just waddled in (still in my PJ’s, but, shhh, don’t tell anyone) from taking a few shots of some bombus on the coneflowers and Susans for bee-spotting endeavors in Illinois. I love this post, and the awareness it brings for bees, especially the bumblers, and your explanation of bees’ bottoms is the bees’ knees.

    1. Glad you, of all people, enjoyed it, Penny. You have been an ambassador of the bombus for a good while now 🙂 Can’t wait to hear what species you have on your coneflowers!

  4. I thought of Penny when I read this post, and her bee-spotting endeavors in Illinois. Condo living affords few opportunities to see bees, so these pictures made me very happy today. 1. They are all really gorgeous, Kate. 2. I don’t have to worry about getting stung. (Do they all have stingers? Or is that a myth like ‘they all make honey’?)

  5. I honestly didn’t know about the many types of bees and it never occured to me that they even had bums, never mind trying to examine one. Great post, Kate.

  6. Methinks a wino would be more inclined to hug a flagon of plonk (sherry or port) rather than a bottle of whiskey (whisky for the Scotch drinkers amongst you)

    Partial to a drop of Bourbon meself

  7. My goodness, I’m not sure you could have separated that bee from his blossom if you’d tried. In fact, I’m not sure you should even have been watching … 😉

  8. i only recently started realizing how many different bees there are myself, Kate! My slow realization came because of bloggers with their beautiful photos of bees, which I then realized didn’t look like the bees in my own backyard. I have since realized that many of “my” bees are cactus bees! Now your bumblebee is such a beauty, as is your photo!

  9. Good on you for seeing all those bees, Kate! I think I’ve seen one – and that was in the living room. I helped it to the freedom of the outside world, but didn’t even think to photograph it… or look at its bottom, come to think of it!

  10. last year, while walking through the woods with a friend’s German Shepherd. She became fascinated with something on the forest floor. I wandered over and it was a very large bee. I, being a fool when it comes to bee knowledge, first rescued the bee from the dog – that part was okay – then worried where to put the bee for safety. Was there a bush nearby? a low hanging leaf on a tree? I actually can’t remember where I left the beauty but when I got home and searched to discover the type of bee it was, it was one that lives in the ground! I’m sure it was rolling it’s eyes at me the whole time!

  11. Dear Kate, I remember a saying or a song–I’m not sure which–from the early part of the twentieth century–maybe the 1920s or ’30s. The saying was “the bee’s knees.” I wonder what that means. Any idea, oh great wise PC beester. Peace.

    1. Taken from The Oxford Dictionaries, Dee: “The phrase was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it was used to mean ‘something very small and insignificant’. Its current meaning dates from the 1920s, at which time a whole collection of American slang expressions were coined with the meaning ‘an outstanding person or thing’. Examples included the flea’s eyebrows, the canary’s tusks, and one that still survives – the cat’s whiskers. The switch in meaning for the bee’s knees probably emerged because it was so similar in structure and pattern to these other phrases.”

  12. Lovely photos, Kate. I was fortunate to get a few of these bumble bees when we were in Giverny. Thank heavens for them, for pollinating the flowers, and making it possible for more flowers to bloom and grow.

  13. Hello, Kate, Gina Marie Mammano again. Radio show host of “Ear Candy” on Whidbey Island in Washington, wondering if I might have permission to read this one as well; this time, for my “Silk and Honey” episode. With gratitude, Gina

      1. Hello Kate. I just wanted to let you know that your piece, “Bumbling matters . . .” is available to listen to on the “Silk and Honey” episode of the Ear Candy radio show on whidbeyair.org. Just go to “podcasts”, click “Ear Candy” and find the show if you’re interested. Thanks again Kate! I had a listener who’s son now has a new interest and appreciation for bees and their bums!

        With gratitude,
        Gina Marie Mammano

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