Types of bees in the UK: how to tell the difference

Spring has never truly arrived until you catch sight of your first bee, but do you know what species it is?

You might be surprised to learn there are more than 250 species of bee in the UK. Bumblebees, mason bees, mining bees; these are just one small part of a big, beautiful family. Take a look at how to identify some of the most common types of bees in the UK.​

Bilberry bumblebee - David Whitaker
Bilberry bumblebee - David Whitaker

Bumblebees

There are around 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, and personally, I don’t think there is a better sight than these clumsy balls of fluff zooming from flower to flower on a sunny day. They are a social species, nesting in colonies ranging from a few dozen to several hundred bees. Here are four of our most common.

There are around 24 species of bumblebee in the UK. (Photo: David Whitaker)
There are around 24 species of bumblebee in the UK. (Photo: David Whitaker)

Tree bumblebee

Easily identified by their ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, tree bumblebees are one of our most common species. They are also the species most likely to colonise nest boxes, and are found in habitats ranging from woodland to gardens. Some of their favourite flowers include rhododendrons, brambles and comfrey.

Red-tailed bumblebee 

Female red-tailed bumblebees are jet black with a bright red or red-orange tail, while males have a yellow-haired head and collar, and a weak yellow midriff-band. These bees do well in a variety of habits including woodland, urban sites, gardens and wildflower-rich grassland; anywhere they can find thistles, bird’s-foot trefoil, buddleia and the rest of their favourite flowers.

White-tailed bumblebee

The classic bumblebee: white-tailed bumbles have a bright yellow collar, a yellow abdomen band and a bright white tail. They look very similar to buff-tailed bumblebees (a browner collar and an orange-tinted tail), and early bumblebees (much smaller, with a bright orange or yellow-orange tail).

White-tailed bumblebees can be found almost anywhere, feeding on flowers ranging from thistles and buddleia to brambles and scabious.

Honeybees

There is just one species of honeybee in the UK, identified by its slim, sandy thorax and black abdomen with golden-amber bands. Honeybees have been domesticated for centuries and it is rare to find a truly wild colony. Our honeybees now mostly live in hives of up to 20,000 individuals, and are commonly found feeding on open flowers they can easily reach with their short tongues. Keep your eyes peeled around willows, orchard trees, oil-seed rape, raspberry flowers and other trees, herbs and shrubs.

Honeybees have been domesticated for centuries and it is rare to find a truly wild colony (Photo: iStock)
Honeybees have been domesticated for centuries and it is rare to find a truly wild colony (Photo: iStock)

Common carder bee

These beautiful little bees are the only UK species with all-brown colouring and no white tail. They range from ginger to a pale, sandy brown, depending on how sun-bleached they are.

Common carder bees are very common and are found everywhere from arable land to urban gardens. Gorse is a favourite food plant alongside things like dandelions, dead-nettles, comfrey, selfheal and foxgloves.

Mason bees 

If you have ever noticed clouds of bees buzzing about in front of brick walls, they were likely mason bees; a solitary species that nests in cavities in wood, hollow stems and walls. Mason bees look a little similar to some mining bee species, but you can tell them apart by their boxy heads and large powerful jaws.

Mating red mason bees (Osmia bicornis). (Photo: WTPL/Richard Becker)
Mating red mason bees (Osmia bicornis). (Photo: WTPL/Richard Becker)

Red mason bee

The mason bee you are most likely to see is the red mason bee. Look out for a black head, brown thorax and orange abdomen, and in females, a lot of fluff! You are likely to see red mason bees in built-up environments with plenty of gardens, churchyards and urban green space, and they are the bee most likely to be tucked up in your bee hotel. Their food plants include sallows, fruit trees and oil-seed rape. 

Mining bees

Spotted a hole in your lawn surrounded by a volcano of excavated earth? It is the work of a mining bee. This solitary species nests in the ground and is part of the Andrena genus; a 67-strong group of diverse bees ranging from 5 – 17mm long. There are two species you are most likely to see.

Mining bees are industrious but solitary. (Photo: WTML/Richard Becker)
Mining bees are industrious but solitary. (Photo: WTML/Richard Becker)

Tawny mining bee

There is no mistaking the tawny mining bee: a honeybee-sized ginger species with a thick orange coat and a black face. They feast on shrubs ranging from willow, hawthorn and blackthorn to fruit trees and maples, and love gorging on dandelions.

Tawny mining bees are found in a wide variety of habitats. From gardens to parks, if there is an area of light soil or a bare bank, you are likely to spot one.

Ashy mining bee

A stunning bee (and my personal favourite), the ashy mining bee is a distinctive little species with monochrome colouring. Its ability to adapt to different habitats is impressive, and the ashy mining bee can be found in heathland, moorland edges, open woodland, coastal grassland, cliffs and quarries.

Some of the ashy mining bees favourite food plants include willow, blackthorn, gorse, buttercups and fruit trees.

More information on bees

Bees are fascinating creatures, with other genera including cuckoo bees, leafcutter bees and nomad bees. Keep your eyes peeled during your next walk in the woods, and if you’d like to attract more bees to your garden, shop for bee products in our online shop.

Find out how to get your garden buzzing

Attract bees to your garden