Cuckoo Bumblebees — All You Need to Know

The Cuckoo bumblebee term encompasses a variety of bee species that all carry the same behavioural characteristics. Although, there are physical differences between them 

So, What Are Cuckoo Bumblebees?

Cuckoo bumblebees are named after the bird since they harbour the same main habit. What is this? The fact that they do not make their nests and instead, they infiltrate the nests from other bee species and lay their eggs here. Because of this, there are only female or male casts and not queens. 

Typically, the females will come out from hibernation far later than other bumblebees so they can make use of the already established nests. 

Differences Between Cuckoo Bumblebees and The Others

The main difference is the one we have already discussed — the fact that Cuckoo bee doesn’t construct their nests! 

However, they also differ because the females have no pollen-collecting ability. They don’t have any pollen baskets on their back legs but, they still feast on pollen just like your regular social bumblebee found in the UK

Cuckoo Bee UK

As you know, the term “cuckoo bumblebee” has many species in its category which all have unique qualities about them. There are six types of cuckoo bees found in the UK. Keep reading for some tips on cuckoo bumblebee identification.

Southern Cuckoo

Bombus vestalis

The Southern cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus vestalis) is the most widespread species of this variety of bumblebee throughout the United Kingdom. However, they are most abundant in the south of England. 

If you catch sight of a freshly emerged female, you will see their ginger collar. Unfortunately, if you miss this freshness, it will have faded to yellow by the time you get to it. 

Gypsy Cuckoo

Bombus bohemicus

These guys aren’t so widespread since you can only find them in specific locations throughout England and Wales due to their declining state. 

Both the Gypsy cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus bohemicus) females and males sport similar markings — thick, yellow collar, a white tail and thin hairs on the abdomen to thorax join — but the smaller, fluffier types are the males. 

Forest Cuckoo

Bombus sylvestris

You’ll rarely find these in Ireland. But throughout the rest of the UK, they’re fairly common (especially in woodland areas).

The female Forest cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus sylvestris) tend to have a thick yellow collar, followed by a thinner one on the abdomen base. It is easy to distinguish them from the other cuckoo bumblebees thanks to their abdomen that curls under. 

Males, like most of them, are similar to the females but sport orange hairs on their tail tip.

Barbuts Cuckoo

Bombus barbutellus
Cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus barbutellus (Kirby) f, KM, Somerset Levels ST415 463, VC6, © Robin Will5

The majority of sightings have been reported in England and very little in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Sadly, it has been stated that the Barbuts cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus barbutellus) are declining in most regions. 

Females sport a dark-yellow collar, white tail and the same yellow where the thorax meets the abdomen. As usual, the males are smaller but contain the same markings. 

Red-Tailed Cuckoo

Bombus rupestris

The Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus rupestris) is pretty common around the whole of England, but rarer in Wales and Ireland. To top it off, those who live in Scotland will never see them. 

These are huge bumblebees that have a statement blocky head! They are completely black except with a red tail. Plus, they don’t have a lot of hair which means you can see their shiny body.

Again, the males are smaller. Except, with this species, they tend to have a light grey band on their abdomen. 

Field Cuckoo

Bombus campestris
Bombus campestris – Field Cuckoo-bee (male) Photo credit: S. Rae

Like a few of the cuckoo bumblebee species, this one is said to be declining in the United Kingdom. You may still get lucky and spot a Field cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus campestris) in England and Wales, but there is no chance in Ireland or Scotland. 

On the females, you will see a dark yellow on their collar and thorax to abdomen join. Since there isn’t much hair on the abdomen itself, its shiny body pokes through. Their most distinctive feature is the two patches of buff hair on their tail. 

As is customary, the males resemble the females almost identically. Having said that, some of them can be all black or extremely light. 

There You Have It!

Now you are fully equipped to identify and inform people of the beautiful UK cuckoo bumblebee species. You’ll be sure to impress your loved one the next time you go for a stroll this summer!

Get The Buzz!

Sign up to receive our newsletter!

Get helpful information about bees and gardening advice on the different ways you can help the UK's bee population!

You can unsubscribe at any time.