Large garden bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus)

Also known as: Ruderal bumblebee
GenusBombus (1)
SizeMale length: 15-16 (2)
Queen length: 21-23 mm (2)
Worker length: 11-18 (2)

Classified as Nationally Scarce in Great Britain (3).

In comparison with other bumblebee species, the large garden or ruderal bumblebee, has a long face and tongue; these are adaptations for feeding on long-tubed flowers (4). They are black, with two yellow bands on the thorax, a single yellow band on the abdomen and a white tail (6). In Britain, a totally black form known as variety harrisellus may arise (4). All castes are similar in appearance to the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), but tend to have a much 'neater', short-haired appearance (2).

This is one of a number of our native bumblebees that has undergone a dramatic and sustained decline in both numbers and range. This bee was very common in southern England at the beginning of the 20th century, but by the 1970s it was scarce. Recent research has only identified populations in East Anglia (5). It has not been recorded in Wales since 1960, and is absent from Scotland. Although widespread throughout Europe it is in decline (3). It was introduced to New Zealand from Britain, and has also been introduced to South America (6).

Found in a range of open, flower-rich habitats, including coastal dunes, saltmarsh margins and shingle, grasslands, and occasionally gardens. In all cases, it requires very large expanses of suitable habitat to support viable populations (4).

The large garden bumblebee makes its nest underground, in the burrows of mice and voles (2). Nests are typically amongst vegetation on banks and slopes. Colonies may contain over 250 workers and often remain active until September (2). The cells in which larvae will be housed are lined with pollen before the eggs are laid (4). Queens hibernate through the winter, probably underground in disused mammal burrows, and emerge the following spring (2). They feed on long-tubed flowers, and show a particular preference for common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), white dead-nettle (Lamium album), woundworts (Stachys spp.), and red clover (Trifolium pratense) (4).

The main cause of the decline of this species (and indeed, many other species of bumblebee) is the widespread loss of large tracts of flower-rich unimproved habitat as a result of agricultural intensification, forestry, and development (4).

This bumblebee is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) priority species, and a Species Action Plan has been produced in order to guide its conservation (3). Some known populations occur on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

For details of how to help bumblebees, see the English Nature leaflet 'Help save the bumblebee...get more buzz from your garden' available here:

Information supplied and authenticated by Bryan Pinchen (independent ecologist).

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (August 2002)
  2. Pinchen, B.J. (2003) Pers. Comm.
  3. UK BAP Species Action Plan (August 2002):
  4. Falk, S. (1991) A review of the scarce and threatened bees, wasps and ants of Great Britain. Nature Conservancy Council, Peterborough.
  5. Prys-Jones, O. E. & Corbet, S. A. (1987) Bumblebees. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  6. Edwards, M (2002) Bumblebee Working Group Report.