Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis)

Brown banded carder bee feeding
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Brown-banded carder bee fact file

Brown-banded carder bee description


The brown-banded carder bee B. humilis is one of the 24 species of bumblebee or cuckoo bee found in the UK. It is also one of the most endangered. This tawny coloured species has a characteristic brown band on the upper surface of the abdomen, hence the common name. Three 'castes' occur within bumblebee nests, a 'queen' (the reproductive female), 'workers' (non-reproductive females) and males. All three castes are broadly similar in appearance, but males can be distinguished as they lack stings and have longer antennae than females. Many people find bumblebees difficult to tell apart and are therefore surprised to discover there are so many species.

Queen length: 16 - 18 mm
Worker length: 10 - 15 mm

Brown-banded carder bee biology

The brown-banded carder bee nests on the surface of the ground, usually in grass tussocks. Bees forage for pollen and nectar throughout the summer months, from May to September. The colonies last for a year, with new queens hibernating through the winter and establishing new colonies the following year.


Brown-banded carder bee range

The brown-banded carder bee was once considered quite widespread in Britain. It is now very local in most of its former range but is still relatively common in the south of England and in South Wales. It is also found throughout Europe.


Brown-banded carder bee habitat

B. humilis is associated with flower-rich meadows that support species with long corollas such as vetches, clovers, dead-nettles and the red bartsia.


Brown-banded carder bee status

Classified as Rare in Britain.


Brown-banded carder bee threats

The main threat to this species is thought to be the loss of the flower-rich grassland and the intensity of modern farming methods. Many of their favoured food plants have become scarce, and with farmers now cultivating right to the edges of the field, places to construct nests have all but disappeared. Hedgerows too, as well as being in short supply, are cut back so regularly that they have ceased to be safe nesting sites.


Brown-banded carder bee conservation

There are five species of bumble and carder bee included on the UK Biodiversity Action Plans, although one, Bombus ruderatus, has still not been positively identified by entomologists as a distinct species. All are also listed in English Nature's Species Recovery Programme. There has been an increasingly vigorous campaign in recent years to raise the public's awareness of the disappearance of our bumblebees. The insects enjoy a good relationship with human beings and, for many, their buzzing induces a nostalgia for summer days long past.

The Action Plans for bumblebees are linked, sensibly enough, with those for many of the threatened plants, which used to populate field boundaries and meadows where the bees obtained their food. It is hoped that some of the proposed changes to the Common Agricultural Policy will benefit many of the species associated with Britain's agricultural regions. In the meantime, there are other projects aiming to help our threatened bees. English Nature has worked with seed companies to develop a wildflower mix, which contains seed from many of the species that bees prefer to feed from. These include red clover, bird's-foot trefoil and several knapweed species. This mixture is now approved for use in Countryside Stewardship Schemes, and farmers are also being encouraged to take up grants to improve the lot of bumblebees. The advantages to the farmer of having these insects around are many. These include their importance in pollinating pea and bean crops, bumblebees' ability to operate at lower temperatures than honeybees, and their considerable popularity with the public.

Oxford University Museum is tackling the problem of bee nesting sites by promoting the use of boxes for those species that frequent domestic gardens. Cultivated flowers can offer a lifeline to many bees, and the additional protection afforded by semi-cultivated gardens is obvious. Bees, however, have no shortage of support amongst the public, and may be able to stage a come-back so that our fields and country lanes will once again simmer with their drowsy buzzing.

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for this species is available at UK BAP.

Find out more

  • There is a handbook available called 'Bumblebees', by Oliver Prys-Jones and Sarah Corbet, published by Richmond Publishing in their Naturalist Handbook series.
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    This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:


    Pair of sensory structures on the head of invertebrates.
    In social insect colonies, a group of individuals that are structurally and/ or behaviourally distinct, performing certain tasks. Examples are the soldier caste of termites and ants, and the workers of bees.
    The petals of a flower considered as a group or unit.
    A winter survival strategy characteristic of some mammals in which an animal's metabolic rate slows down and a state of deep sleep is attained. Whilst hibernating, animals survive on stored reserves of fat that they have accumulated in summer. In insects, the correct term for hibernation is 'diapause', a temporary pause in development and growth. Any stage of the lifecycle (eggs, larvae, pupae or adults) may enter diapause, which is typically associated with winter.



    Image credit

    Brown banded carder bee feeding  
    Brown banded carder bee feeding

    © Robin Williams

    Robin Williams
    Kyntons Mead
    Heath House
    BS28 4UQ
    United Kingdom


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