Bumblebee

Bumblebees are large, hairy, social bees belonging to the family Apidae (subfamily Bombinae).

Bumblebees are not native to Australia, though the large earth bumblebee Bombus terrestris has established in Tasmania. Though there have been occasional reports of bumblebees in Victoria, none of these reports have been confirmed.

If you think you've seen bumblebees in Victoria

If you think you've seen bumblebees in Victoria, contact our Customer Service Centre on 136 186.

Provide the following information:

  • your name, address, and telephone number
  • a description of the insect, including size, colour, general appearance, noise when flying and speed of flight
  • the date, time and exact location of the sighting
  • habitat, host plant or flower and weather conditions, if possible

If, from your description, bumblebees are suspected, a technical specialist might contact you to arrange a visit to the location where the sighting occurred.

If you've collected an insect and think it's a bumblebee

Warning: Bumblebees can sting multiple times. Do not handle live bees. Only collect bumblebees if you are competent in the collection of stinging insects and it is safe to do so.

If you suspect an insect you've collected is a bumblebee, please submit the insect for examination:

  1. Kill the bee in methylated spirits or ethyl alcohol.
  2. Place it in a tightly capped glass or plastic tube or jar (but not in a paper envelope).
  3. Label the container with your name, address, telephone number, and the date, time, and exact location where the insect was collected. If possible, include other relevant information such as habitat, host plant or flower, and weather conditions.
  4. Post it to the following address:

    Crop Health Services
    Private Bag 15
    South Eastern Mail Centre VIC 3176

Appearance of a bumblebee

Although many native bees (Figures 6 and 7) occur in Australia, none resemble bumblebees. The large earth bumblebee (Figures 1 to 3) is hairier, and more heavily built, than the European honeybee (Figure 4) or the European wasp (Figure 5).

Large earth bumblebee Bombus terrestris queen is bigger and more heavily built than the drones, workers and other species of beesLarge earth bumblebee Bombus terrestris male droneLarge earth bumblebee Bombus terrestris worker is smaller than queens and drones but bigger than the European honey bee

European honeybee Apis mellifera is smaller than the bumblebee and less brightly colouredEuropean wasp Vespula germanica is bright yellow and black, and less hairy than bumblebees or honeybeesBlue-banded bee Amegilla pulchra

Leaf-cutting bee Megachilidae Hover fly Syrphidae is small, less hairy and has a bight yellow and black abdomen

Colour and markings

The large earth bumblebee is black with one yellow or ochre band across the front of the thorax, and another yellow/ochre band across the abdomen. An important identifying feature of the large earth bumblebee is the tip of the abdomen, which is buff or white.

European wasps are bright yellow and black, and less hairy than bumblebees or honeybees.

Size

Large earth bumblebee queens (Figure 1) are 30mm to 35mm in length. They make a loud buzzing sound during flight.

Workers (Figure 3) are highly variable in size, ranging from 8mm to 22mm in length. Large earth bumblebee males (Figure 2) are similar in size and appearance to large workers.

In comparison, European honeybee Apis mellifera workers are approximately 15mm long and are dark yellow-orange and black. European wasp Vespula germanica workers average around 15mm long, and European wasp queens can be up to 20mm long.

Potential threat to Victoria

The large earth bumblebee is used commercially overseas to pollinate certain glasshouse and field crops. But in Victoria bumblebees could pose a potential threat to the environment and primary production.

Under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, the introduction and spread of the large earth bumblebee to Victoria has been listed as a 'potentially threatening process'. Potential impacts include:

  • competition with native nectar feeding fauna
  • decline in the seed production of native plant species
  • increase in the seed production of introduced plants that currently lack an efficient pollinator (often called 'sleeper weeds')

Bumblebees can also sting multiple times, although they will generally only do so when physically threatened.

Investigating the impact of bumblebees

Studies are underway in Tasmania to assess the impact of bumblebees on:

  • other pollinators
  • native plants
  • sleeper weeds

These studies are also investigating the distribution and spread of the large earth bumblebee in Tasmania, and whether pests or pathogens of the bumblebee are present.

In Victoria, we are preparing an Action Statement that describes the threat and states what will be done to manage the threat. Some actions, such as the preparation and implementation of prevention and early detection measures are already underway.

Bringing bumblebees into Victoria

Bumblebees cannot be imported to Australia from other countries. Visit the Department of Agriculture website for information on importing animals to Australia.

Introducing the large earth bumblebee to Victoria from Tasmania may be a breach of the Livestock Disease Control Regulations 2017. Contact our Animal Health Branch on (03) 5430 4509 for advice.

Image credits

Image collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Page last updated: 13 Jul 2020