How To Identify Bumble Bees of Northern Utah
written by Jim Cane with help from Matt Shepherd
illustrations by Linda Kervin
The Cache Valley and its neighboring mountains are home to 11 species of native bumble bees. Among them are the region’s largest bees, particularly the robust queens seen flying and foraging in the spring when they are establishing and provisioning a nest. Bumble bees are important pollinators of our native flora, especially in the mountains, as well as some of our garden plants.
Bumble bees possess three attributes that will help you to distinguish them from all other bees in the region: they are big, they are more furry than most other bees, and females transport pollen as a wet mass held in a “pollen basket” on the hind leg. The pollen basket of the hind pair of legs is broadened and concave like a shallow, elongate spoon. If empty, its polished surface can be seen reflecting light. Only the honey bee in our fauna has a similar pollen basket; all other bees here that collect pollen carry it in a dense brush of hairs either on the hind leg or under the abdomen. Bumble bees are much more furry than the honey bee, the only other bee here that has a pollen basket.
(For Your Wallet)
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We have depicted the eleven bumble bee species of Cache Valley and neighboring mountains as stylized portraits. Each portrait depicts the bee’s back from above, with their heads facing the top of the screen (or page). Legs and wings are not shown, as they lack diagnostic features. The accompanying uncolored figure will guide you through the different relevant parts of a bee.
Some of the species will be exceedingly difficult to distinguish in the field, especially worn individuals, but other species can be recognized given a trained eye. There are three attributes of a bumble bee’s furry coat that you should see and note for identification. Progressing from head to abdomen, these are:
1) Head. What is the hair color atop the head yellow or black?
2) Thorax. Is there a patch of black hair on the top of the thorax, between or behind the wings? If so, is it a disc of black, a band of black, or is the entire hind half of the thorax covered in black hair?
3) Abdomen. Is the tip white? Are there orange bands? Which segments are orange? Is an orange band split by a central black stripe along the upper surface? Are the yellow hairs greenish or golden?
This might seem like a lot of detail to gather from such a small creature, but with a bit of practice it becomes easy and quick to see and note these features, just as when you are trying to identify a bird. To make it a bit easier, carry a notebook in which you can jot down the information or sketch the bees that you see. Binoculars can help with bees on bushes or in more inaccessible places. Importantly, take the time to enjoy watching the bee as she forages, and listen for her buzzing those flowering species that shed their pollen like a salt shaker through tiny pores at the tips of the anthers (examples include shooting star, tomato, and nightshade).