wild bees and native bees

The dazzling black-tailed bumble bee

The gorgeous creature shown below is the black-tailed bumble bee, a name that perplexes me no end. I concede that this bee does indeed have a black butt, but is that the standout feature here? When you glance at this bee, is that the first thing you notice? While the name gives you no insight into the bee, it sure tells you a lot about the mind of the entomologist. Those people are weird.

To make things more confusing, some populations of these bees do not have the bright orange rump. However, the tail ends of the black-rumped bees are mostly yellow with a hint of black at the tip. So even in these cases, the name “black-tailed” is a stretch.

Black-tailed bumble bee nests

The black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) is a species found on the west coast of North America from southern British Columbia down into northern California. It is one of the bumbles that sometimes nests above ground, and it can often be seen in birdhouses, mail boxes, and other cozy structures. It likes insulation and stuffing just as well, and has been found in walls and discarded mattresses. In a pinch, it is also perfectly happy to nest underground.

Here at my place, I must have a nest nearby because hordes (or is it schools? flocks?) of these bumbles are visiting my Ceanothus bush. They are a compelling sight, flashing their black tails as they buzz pollinate the azure flowers. When the Ceanothus is done, they will move to something else. They are generalist, easy-to-please pollinators and lots of fun to watch.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

This black-tailed bumble bee is foraging on Ceanothus.

This black-tailed bumble bee is foraging on Ceanothus, the California lilac. © Rusty Burlew.

Bumble bee foraging on California lilac.

Black-tailed bumbles forage on a wide range of plants. © Rusty Burlew.

The bees were making the high-pitched whine of buzz pollination

Dozens and dozens of bumble bees were foraging and making the high-pitched whine of buzz pollination. © Rusty Burlew.

Small feet on a big bee.

Here you can see the eponymous black tail. But why does such a fat bee have such tiny feet? © Rusty Burlew.

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35 Comments

  • I’ve seen one or two of these bees on my ceanothus and I sure wouldn’t have guessed that was it’s name. I hope this means there’s a nest close bye. They are so beautiful.

  • Last Saturday I attended The Walking Pollinators Workshop at Moseley Bog, in Birmingham, England. I really wished to learn more about other species of bee as when swarm collecting it would be lovely to give some information on bumble bees. This was an amazing event! Steven Falk (entomologist) was so inspiring, with a tremendous wealth of knowledge on the whole environment surrounding the pollinators, and how they interact with each other, and their habitats. I came away with such admiration for our local nature reserve and within an hour and a half we had spotted 9 of the 25 species of bumble bee in the UK, without venturing very far into Moseley Bog. Simply wonderful, I even had the opportunity to stroke a bumble bee, and have a hover fly held to my ear to hear it’s buzz close up. He has recently (2015) written The Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. A really beautiful book 🙂

  • A very pretty bug. Nice pics. Re tiny feet, they remind me of a cat’s hind feet from the rear. R

  • Hi Rusty!

    Wonderful photos and I’m really happy that you’re seeing these bees. They are B. melanopygus, right? I haven’t seen ANY this year or last year and that concerns me. However, I had a neighbor look for them and she called and said she saw a huge one (a queen) 1.5 blocks from my house. I’ve seen many B. vosnesenskii queens and some workers. I’ll be looking for melanopygus in my lavenders when they bloom (soon!!!).

    • Thanks Ellen. That’s one of those shots I didn’t know I had until I saw it. The end of the tale.

  • The palette of colors for bumbles is surprisingly limited. In Butte MT I saw a bumble with similar tinting that I know was different. At some point I hope we come up with more creative common names for bumbles, such as many of the names we’ve given to butterflies, dragonflies, and birds. We know that the proper (very proper) name for this bumble is the black-tailed bee, but in our family she is unquestionably “the Red-Butt”, a name we unfailingly give her when we write about her in our blog.

    We have been distressed by how much later and fewer the Red Butts have been this soggy spring, but nonetheless we are seeing them, and I’m confident that their numbers will bounce back with a more normal spring.

    (BTW, we are also noticing that some early flowering aggregate fruits, such as salmonberry, are incompletely pollinated/fertilized.)

    Glen

    • Glen,

      I haven’t noticed any incomplete pollination around here, but then I’ve got a cajillion honey bees covering the bases.

      • The incomplete fruits are like salmon berries along a nature trail not close to any hives, dependent upon native and feral bees for pollination. But yeah, in my backyard I’m gonna have to thin my apple tree cause the girls were so busy (Osmia in my case). And despite the crummy weather my cherry is fruitier than usual — I still haven’t figured out its cross-pollination source, cause I think the bees have to travel half a block to find another cherry, which is quite a distance for Osmia.

        Anyway, I’m going off topic (shocking). Thanks for writing about Bombus melanopygus — she is a beauty. Just this week I met an eight year old who is trying to raise bumbles by capturing queens, is better versed in bumble biology than most adults. I was thinking of the stories written by Dave Goulson and Fredrick Sladen and others of their young explorations. Of all the contagions that shape our world, enthusiasm is the one I am most indebted to.

  • Gorgeous! Fantastic pics. One question, though – does a bee sting from a black-tailed bumblebee have the same adverse effects if you have allergies?

  • Black tailed bumblebees nesting in my birdhouse…..how long will they stay?…are they making babies?

    • Dollyanna,

      Yes, they are most likely raising a family in there. The nests usually start in March or April and continue through August.

  • Do they over winter in their nest? Do the Black Tail Bumble Bees use the same nest year after year?

    I have a nest in the side of our barn. I want to re-side the barn this summer. But I do not want to trip or hurt them.

    • Steve,

      No, they do not overwinter in their nest. After next year’s queens are mated (which for black-tailed bumbles means by June, July, or maybe August) the gynes (mated females) will find a safe place to overwinter, usually in a small hole in the soil or under leaf litter. The rest of the colony will die and no bees will be in the nest through the winter.

  • Have one of these B. melanopygus queens starting her nest in a wood duck box I put up this winter. I’ll probably let her have it since I have 6 more. Don’t see nearly as many of these as the B. vosnesenskii, which were overwhelming last year.

    • Cal,

      I agree. Last year was the year of the vosnesenskii. I never saw anything like it. I think I had more of them here at the house than honey bees. And when I did Bumble Bee Atlas surveys in Lewis County, that’s all I saw.

      I love that melanopygus will nest in bird and duck houses. I was thinking of putting some up for that purpose.

  • Dozens have taken over a birdhouse on my patio, right outside the kitchen door. They are loud. Come and go every couple of seconds. They seem content and don’t bother us, I hope this continues. It’s May now, how long do they stick around? We live in Puyallup WA.

  • These bumble bees are usually the first ones I see in late winter/early spring on the Pieris japonica. Then they go to the Ceanothus when it blooms – then they disappear. Now in August, I spotted one on some nearby big thistles! Glad to know they last into the summer here in Beaverton Oregon.

  • Hi Rusty- I found your article because I’m having a territory issue. The black-butted bumbles are invading an inhabited birdhouse! Do you think if I put up a mason bee house nearby they might move? I saw momma bird kill one!

    • Robyn,

      Black-tailed bumble bees frequently nest in birdhouses, one of their favorite places it seems. But they will not nest in a mason bee house. Mason bees are solitary bees: one female builds a nest in one tube. Bumble bees are social bees with large nests of up to around 500 bees. A bumble would not and could not live there.

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