ID GUIDE TO WILD BEES - NEW YORK

BUMBLE BEES

BUMBLE BEES  have plump, furry-looking, yellow-and-black bodies and are known for the loud buzzing sound they make when they zoom by.  The genus Bombus, to which bumble bees belong, is Latin for "buzzing" or "deep roar".  Bumble bees practice buzz pollination, using vibrations of their flight muscles to shake pollen from flower anthers. This makes them particularly effective pollinators of crops such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

 

Bumble bees are visible in New York from March through November.  They build their nests underground or slightly above the ground.  Like honey bees, bumble bees tend to be social.  That is, they form colonies that contain a queen, male drones and female workers.  Bumble bee colonies are more modest in size, however, than honey bee hives.  While honey bee colonies may may contain tens of thousands of bees, bumble bee nests usually harbor a few hundred workers at most. 


In March and April in our area, bumble bee queens surface from hibernation and scout for good nesting sites, often selecting holes abandoned by small rodents. The queens sustain themselves on nectar from early-flowering trees such as willow and redbud.  They collect pollen as they go, to bring back to their nests for storage.  The queens construct wax eggs cells in their nests and deposit eggs in them.  From these, pupae hatch that gradually metamorphose into winged workers, which emerge to gather pollen for the hive.  Thereafter, the queens may remain home, laying more eggs and producing successive new generations of workers.  Usually around mid-summer, the queens nurture specially-fed offspring that develop into males and new queens.  After mating, the males die, along with the worker bees.  The queens alone survive to brave the winter and re-emerge in the spring.

Many bumble bee species are currently in decline in New York and other states, a result of habitat loss and pesticide use.   There are currently nine bumble bees on the New York Natural Heritage Program Rare Animal List.  Among these is the yellow bumble bee, shown below, which appears in both the park and Stone Barns in early and mid-summer. 

Half-black Bumble Bee
(Bombus vagans
3/5 to  4/5"  (medium-large)

Half-black bumble bees' preferred natural habitats are woodland areas and wetlands.  These bees emerge in May at the park, foraging on the flowers of woodland trees.  During the spring and summer, half-black bumble bees can be spied only occasionally in sunny areas of the park, feeding on wineberry blossoms, toadflax, St. John's wort, thistles, milkweed, heath aster, staghorn sumac and goldenrod.  Unlike many bees, half-black bumble bees like to forage in shady woods. Perhaps in part because of this, they may be harder to spy in the park than many of the other bumble bees shown on this page.

 

Half-black bumble bees are somewhat easier to encounter at Stone Barns, where they hover around cover crops like cow vetch and clover.  The bees are also drawn to sunflower plantings and to flowering herbs in Stone Barns' gardens, among them tansy, beebalm, hyssop, various catmints and betony.  Half-back bees are also documented pollinators of rhododendrons, cranberries and melons.

 

Half-black bumblebees build fairly small colonies, numbering around seventy bees.  Like most bumblebees, they build nests in holes in the ground, or occasionally above ground.  In our personal field experience, these are tough little bumble bees.   We have seen them grab larger common eastern bumble bees from below and behind by their back legs and yank them off flowers, tumbling them in the same way you might yank to the ground someone standing above you on a ladder.

 

Identification information:    Half-black bumble bees are most easily identified in profile. The yellow portion of the bee -- its thorax and the first two segments of its abdomen -- extends a long way down the bee's body, like a yellow tunic.  The half-black bumble bee's thorax is yellow on the top and sides, usually with a small black dot at the center.  (Workers may have a larger black spot.)  The hairs of the half-black bumble bee are fairly long and frequently described as "shaggy-looking". The underside of the bee is black; its legs are black; and its wings are somewhat dark. Males have yellow hair on their faces, and both males and females have yellow hair on the upper sides of their heads.

 

These are small bumble bees, compared to several others on this page.  Half-black bumble bee workers tend to run 2/5"  to 1/2"  in length; males are slightly larger.  Queens may be longer, up to 4/5".  The female bee shown here is about 3/4" and probably a queen.

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

Two-spotted bumble bees tend to live close to or within wooded areas. They are less commonly seen at the park and Stone Barns than the other bumble bees shown here.  Nevertheless, two-spotted bumble bees do sally forth from the woods in early spring, around the time the first cherry trees bloom.  These wild bees are thought to have a co-evolutionary relationship with many short-lived spring wildflowers. Bombus bimaculatus queens are the chief pollinators of Dutchman's Breeches, a spring ephemeral that emerges in April in the park (shown in the first photo strip at right).

 

Beginning in mid-June, two-spotted bumble bees can be spied foraging amid wild thistles in the Swan Lake meadow and feeding on sage in Stone Barns' herb gardens.  Two-spotted bumble bees are generalists, known to pollinate a variety of wildflowers and garden flowers, including bee balm, sweet clover, goldenrod, St. John's Wort, honeysuckle, roses and rhododendrons.   These bees are also documented pollinators of stone fruits, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and linden trees.  Two-spotted bumble  bees disappear from the park in mid-July.

 

Identification information:  Two-spotted bumblebees look yellow from a distance:  they have predominantly yellow faces and  thoraxes (mid-sections).  They have wide, plump-looking bodies, and their hair is thick and flush.  Their legs, eyes and antennae are black, and their wings are transparent dark brown.  As shown in the photo strip at right, the first segment of a two-spotted bumble bee's abdomens is yellow, and the second is black on the sides, with a patch of yellow arranged around the  mid-line on the top of the bee.   (In males, the first two segments are occasionally yellow, followed by a yellow -intermixed-with -black segment.) 

 

Two-spotted bumble bees can be best identified by the rounded W-shape of the curved line formed where the top yellow hairs near the base of the bee's abdomen meets the black  hairs of the lower segments (shown above right).  The name "two-spotted" can be confusing, as the spots on this bee can be difficult to locate.   Some sources hold that there are "two yellow spots"  on the bee's abdomen (located approximately where the W's curves lie); other sources maintain that there are "two black spots," a contradiction that serves as a testament to the need to give this bee a better name.

 

Two-spotted bumble bees' thoraxes each have a small black dot at the center -- this is a good way to distinguish them from the perplexing bumble bee, which has an entirely yellow thorax; and from the golden northern bumble bee, which has a black bar crossing its thorax.  Two-spotted bumble bees are sometimes  mistaken for half-black bumblebees; the differences between these two species are noted below.

Two-Spotted Bumble Bee
(Bombus bimaculatus) -  2/5 to  4/5"  (large)

A  worker two-spotted bumble bee

A queen two-spotted bumble bee emerging from her nest in early spring

Golden northern bumble bees, also known as yellow bumble bees, are a dazzling species.  They are fast, efficient workers, pollinating as many as forty-four blossoms per minute; entomologists have noted that yellow bumble bees sometimes work at such a pace that they expire from exhaustion.  Yellow bumble bees are equipped with very long tongues and are often spied with their heads buried in the deep throats of flowers. They are also much fightier than typical bumble bees – they pursue attackers for several hundred yards from a colony, repelling intruders such as parasitic cuckoo bumble bees by covering them with honey.
 
These traits, good and bad, make yellow bumble bees exceptional pollinators. They survive in a range of environments – including the edges of agricultural fields, parks, gardens and roadsides. Their nesting sites, however, need to be within about 50 yards of an area where food is abundant enough to feed an entire colony. Because of this, the loss of natural habitats and pesticide-free agricultural areas can sharply curtail yellow bumble bee populations in a given locality. 
Yellow bumble bees commonly build their nests above ground, although they sometimes nest underground. Their combs are often hidden beneath debris such as grass commingled with bird feathers, or constructed in semi-sheltered locations -- for example, under boards or beneath the frames of abandoned honey bee hives.  The bees' tendency to build nests above the ground may make them more vulnerable to sudden weather changes and pesticide use.
Despite these bees' threatened status, they appear in both Rockefeller State Park Preserve and at Stone Barns. In both locations, yellow bumble bees seek similar conditions:  they inhabit areas dominated by open, sun-lit fields or meadows with grassy or low-growing vegetation.  At both sites, the open areas contain an abundance of deep-throated legumes and clover.
 
In the park, yellow bumble bees frequent a large grassy field situated in the preserve's Rockwood Hall section, where they feed on white clover and the deep-throated flowers of  the weedy legume known as toadflax (Linaria vulgaris).  The bees also appear occasionally feeding on wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and on white clover (Trifolium repens) and red clover (Trifolium pratense), in meadow areas bordering Swan Lake. 
 
At Stone Barns, yellow bumble bees inhabit open fields where deep-throated cow vetch (Vicia cracca) has established itself.  The bees forage in two different parts of Stone Barns -- in a vegetable-growing area, and several hundred yards away, in a pasture sometimes grazed by sheep.  In both areas, white clover is abundant and visited by small Bombus fervidus worker bees, while larger male and queen yellow bumble bees feed on the cow vetch.  Nearby both areas are plantings of bee balm, which the bees also frequent.
The bees emerge in the last weeks of June and remain visible through August.  Even on the hottest days, yellow bumble bees in both the preserve and Stone Barns tend to gather nectar and pollen in the heat of the midday sun.  Many pollinators seek shelter from the sun at mid-day and emerge later in the afternoon, when fields are cooler, and thus yellow bumble bees' feeding schedule may give them an advantage during hot summer months.  In addition, the bees' long tongues provide them access to rich pollen sources less accessible to shorter- tongued bees, reducing the stress of competition for pollen the yellow bumble bees might encounter in habitats without deep-throated flowers.
Yellow bumblebees are useful pollinators of blueberries and flowering shrubs and trees, among them black willow, yellow poplar and American holly. Although in the park and in Stone Barns, yellow bumble bees show an overwhelming preference for legumes (vetch, clover and toadflax), records reveal that they are broad generalists. They have been recorded elsewhere feeding on sunflowers, thistles, cornflowers, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and other aster-family flowers; bindweed; cleome; dandelions; garden asparagus; lobelias; lupine; and salvia -- among others.
​RARE SPECIES STATUS:  The yellow bumble bee is one of nine bumble bee species currently on the New York Natural Heritage Program Rare Species List.  Of these, the yellow bumble bee is ranked in the category of "rarest/most imperiled". 
The yellow bumble bee has appeared at both Rockefeller State Park Preserve and Stone Barns during three consecutive June-July periods of 2015, 2016 and 2017.  This species' endurance in these locations is a result of careful land management and of efforts to foster plants on which yellow bumble bees feed. Chief among these are cow vetch (Vicia cracca) and wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa).
Since 2010, Bugguide.net has recorded a handful of sightings of these bees elsewhere in New York -- in Kings, Queens, Monroe and Jefferson Counties.
NATIONAL CONSERVATION STATUS:  The yellow bumble bee is considered a "vulnerable" threatened species nationally.  Yellow bumble bees are dispersed throughout much of the U.S. and parts of Canada, and are commoner in some regions than in New York.   Nonetheless, Bombus fervidus numbers overall have shown a steady decline.  
Identification Information:  The yellow bumble bee is easy to identify, because its body is predominantly yellow.  In addition, on most specimens, a prominent black bar crosses the bee's yellow-haired thorax between the wings.
 
Most of the yellow bumble bee’s abdomen is covered with bands of thick yellow hair.  The tip of the yellow bumble bee's abdomen is black.  (All male bumble bees have 7 abdominal segments, and  all females have 6. On male yellow bumble bees, the sixth and seventh abdominal segments, known as T-7 and T-6, are black.   On female yellow bumble bees, the fifth and sixth abdominal segments, known as T-5 and T-6 are black.) The yellow bumble bee's underside is also covered with black hair; its head and legs are black; and its wings are smoky- black. Males tend to be appear a deep lemon-yellow, while females look pale yellow.
These bees show occasional variation in color and markings.  Female worker and queen yellow bumble bees found in the park tend to be pale yellow.  Males are often a bright lemony-yellow, but also are found in a darker brownish-yellow hue.  Yellow bumble bees in other areas, as documented on Bugguide.net, have appeared with white rather than yellow thoraxes, or without the black bar on their thoraxes. 
 
Queen yellow bumble bees are large -- approximately 3/4" to 4/5" long.  Female worker bees, by contrast, can be relatively small, around 2/5", but may run as large as 2/3".  Males are generally longer than typical female workers, usually between 1/2" and 2/3".

Yellow Bumble Bee
or Golden Northern Bumble Bee

(Bombus fervidus) - 3/5" to 4/5" (large)

STATUS:  RARE IN NEW YORK

All photos (c) 2014 - 2017 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

A Male Yellow Bumble Bee 

A Yellow Bumble Bee Queen

A Female Worker Yellow Bumble Bee

Brown-belted bumble bees are important pollinators of blackberries, raspberries, stone fruits, wildflowers and garden flowers.  These bees appear in sun-filled grassy fields and swampy areas of Rockefeller State Park Preserve, particularly where milkweed abounds. The males of this species like to perch on plants and chase moving objects in search of mates.  Males prefer high perches and, according to the bumble bee experts Williams, Thorp, Richardson and Colla, authors of the classic Bumble Bees of North America, male brown-belted bumblebees have been sighted near the top of the Empire State Building. 

 

Identification Information:  These bees can be best identified by their trim "crew cut" fur and by the belt of brown hair that usually appears near the front end (on the second segment) of their black abdomens, just behind a narrow yellow band.  Brown-belted bumble bees have  black legs and dark transparent wings.  Their heads are black, sometimes with yellow markings, and they have large black eyes.  The bees' yellow thoraxes (mid-sections) may or may not have a black spot at the center.  Queen bees may lack the brown belt.  Queens are substantially larger than other members of this species but have the same distinctive large eyes and  trim fur.

 

Unlike other bumble bees shown on this page, brown-belted bumble bees have short tongues.  They thus are unable to access nectar and pollen from deep-throated flowers.  They prefer blossoms that have flat landing platforms containing multiple florets, such as milkweed, black-eyed Susans and thistles.   Instead of expending energy by flying from one flower to the next, brown-belted bumble bees can walk from floret to floret, efficiently gathering a small amount of nectar from each. The brown-belted bumble bees shown here were gathering nectar in this fashion from coneflowers, common milkweed and swamp milkweed.  These bumble bees also feed on goldenrod, toadflax and thistles along park trails and in Stone Barns' gardens.  They first appear in our area in mid-March and remain throughout the summer.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee
(Bombus griseocollis) -  2/5" to 9/10"  (large)

All photos (c) 2014 - 2017 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

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Perplexing Bumble Bee
(Bombus perplexus) -  1/2" to 4/5"  (large)

Also known as "confusing bumble bees," perplexing bumble bees are fuzzy and yellow:  they look a little like flying teddy bears.  They emerge in the park in April and remain though July, foraging on a variety of flowering plants, including dogwood, wild berries, honeysuckle and milkweed. They are less gregarious and harder to spot in the park than the other species shown here:   the bee at right appeared as a solitary perplexing bumble bee among hundreds of red-belted and common eastern bumble bees zooming around a large stand of common milkweed.

 

​Perplexing bumble bees are important pollinators of garden plants such as rhododendrons and hydrangeas, which both require "buzz pollination" to be fertilized.  These bumble bees also serve as pollinators of currants, gooseberries, blueberries, cranberries and stone fruits.

Identification Information:  The perplexing bumble bee is easily distinguished from other bumble bees by its bright yellow coloration and the distinctive "mussy" appearance of its hairs. Unlike the brown-belted and common eastern bumble bees shown above and below, the perplexing bumble bee has a head that is usually entirely yellow and a predominantly yellow body banded by narrow dark stripes.  The tip of its abdomen and its underbelly are black.  Coloration varies somewhat from bee to bee.  Some perplexing bumble bees in the park appear a bright, nearly electric yellow, while others are pale yellow or muted yellowish-tan.

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

Common Eastern Bumble Bee
(Bombus impatiens) - 1/3" to 4/5" (large)

Common eastern bumble bees are found throughout Rockefeller State Park Preserve and Stone Barns.  In mid-summer, these bumble bees can be seen in large numbers gathering pollen from milkweed in sunny clearings of the park and from coneflowers in the Visitor's Center garden.  When together, the bees make an impressive buzzing noise as they zoom from flower to flower.  Common eastern bumble bees, however, do not swarm and are not aggressive. They tend to ignore the presence of people and to appear fully absorbed by the work of gathering pollen.


Common eastern bumble bees are exceptionally hardy.  They are among the first bees to appear in the park in early spring, when there is still a chill in the air. Queen common eastern bumble can be spied zipping though the park's woodland areas in the first weeks of April.  Bombus impatiens workers are the most numerous bumble bee pollinators of the park's May-blooming Peony Monument garden and of the park's summer wildflowers and Visitor's Center summer garden.  

 

In late August, other bumble bee species in our area begin  to fade -- but common eastern bumble bees forge on in significant numbers. These tough bees linger in the park glades as summer flowers give way to goldenrod, thistles and asters. During this period, common eastern bumblebees negotiate a transformed habitat, skirting adult crab spiders that lie in wait in fall flowers for pollinators. Bombus impatiens are among the last bees to disappear in fall -- they can be spied as late as early November, pollinating the last scraggly asters still blooming as winter sets in.

During periods of drought when many bee populations dwindle and disappear from view, Bombus impatiens forge on, guaranteeing the survival of  a vast array of flowering plants .  Common eastern bumble bees are generalist pollinators that visit a seemingly endless  list of plants.  At Stone Barns  Center for Food and Agriculture, these bees appear wherever flowers and vegetables are in bloom -- they can be seen pollinating crops as diverse as sunflowers, tobacco, eggplants, clover and summer squash, foraging among herbs like lavender and comfrey, and drinking nectar from a diverse gamut of garden flowers.  

The common eastern bumble bee is an essential pollinator of many commercial crops, among them blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes and peppers.  This hardy bee is also a vigorous pollinator of urban gardens. 

 

Identification Information:  The common eastern bumble bee is distinguished by its gold-and-black furry body, a prominent black spot on its thorax (mid-section) and dark wings. The bee's head, eyes, antennae and legs are black, and its abdomen is black striped with faint bands of brownish-gray hairs.  These bees vary greatly in size: males can be more than twice the size of the smallest female workers, which can measure as little as one third of an inch. 

Bombus impatiens morphs:  Occasionally, morph common eastern bumble bees appear that manifest color variation. Instead of having abdomens striped with black hairs, the morphs have dark reddish brown hairs. A short discussion of this phenomenon can be found at bugguide.net.  An example of a morph Bombus impatiens is shown in the photo strip at right.

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

A Crab Spider Capturing a Common Eastern Bumble Bee

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REFERENCES:  For a comprehensive list of references used in compiling this guide, click here:

 8-23-15