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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 Colombia 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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Comments

Deb Corcoran
Reply

What a gorgeous bumblebee! Amazing how the beauty of a bee can enthrall us!

Mike Riter
Reply

Great bumble bee photos!

JoeC
Reply

Probably not hoards, but maybe hordes?

Rusty
Reply

Oh no! You got me!

Marilyn
Reply

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.

Samantha Walker
Reply

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 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Samantha,

That sounds like fun!

Rebekah Lee
Reply

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

Pedro
Reply

She is not fat, she is just very fluffy!

Judy Scher
Reply

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!!!).

Rusty
Reply

Judy,

Yes. Bombus melanopygus. I have four different species in that bush today!

Ellen Gehling
Reply

Oh how I enjoy your native bee posts. And that last image is fantastic!

Rusty
Reply

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

Lauren
Reply

Gorgeous photos! <3 thank you for sharing them with us 🙂

Glen Buschmann
Reply

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

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

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

Glen Buschmann
Reply

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.

Emily
Reply

I love your commentary! You crack me up Rusty.

Li
Reply

Thanks so much for this post and pics! Love it!

Xander @ Fantastic Pest Control Melbourne
Reply

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

Rusty
Reply

Venom is different in every species. Just because you are allergic to one doesn’t mean you are allergic to another.

Xander @ Fantastic Pest Control Melbourne
Reply

Great. Thanks.

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