There's more to a bumblebee than you might think. To begin with there are 22 species in the British Isles, of which 7 are common and widespread. You could expect to find all these seven species in the average garden. The remaining species have declined in the past 30 years and you would need to seek them out in flower-rich habitats such as meadows or chalk downland, or in specialist habitats for some. Herbaceous borders are a good place to start looking and those at Exbury attract a good range of common bumbles. Some are easy to recognise. Perhaps the most familiar one, found in most gardens, is the Buff-tailed-Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) (left). In spring the queens are the first to emerge, big black-and-yellow striped furry bees, with buff coloured tails. Tails are an important part of a bumble's anatomy if you are trying to distinguish between the various different ones. Another large one is the White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), similar to the former except for a white tail (right).
Things then get a bit more difficult as the workers of both (smaller than the queens) are too similar to separate in the field. Another very common garden species is the Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum) (left) which looks quite different. It has a brown body and a stripy brownish tail and is much smaller. You will often see it entering tubular flowers such as foxgloves in search of nectar.
A recent colonist, the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) (right), is easy to recognise and may take over nest boxes or other holes in trees. It has a striking brown back, is plain black behind the wings with a white tail. I first saw it on the flowers of a horse chestnut at Exbury, and it is now widespread.
Finally, the Red Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) is easy to recognise. It is all black, with a red tail (left). The queen is large; the workers can be very small but the colour pattern stays the same. They like clover and can often be seen on lawns which are not cut too short.
Some of the bumbles have long tongues and some short; this determines the type of flower that they obtain nectar from. It is fascinating to watch them collecting pollen which they pack on to their hind legs, careful to do it equally so as not to become unbalanced in flight. They are active in most weathers as their furry bodies keep them warm, but they are out in greater numbers when it is sunny.