Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why are you focusing on bumble bees?
Bumble bees are easily recognizable and iconic pollinators. They are also essential pollinators in agriculture, wildlands, and urban areas but evidence shows that many species are suffering alarming population declines. We need more information about the distribution and trends of bumble bee populations. Once we know the distribution of these animals we can more effectively target conservation efforts. For more information, see www.xerces.org/bumblebees

2. Why participate?
We need your help! Because these animals are widely distributed the best way to keep track of them is with an army of volunteers across the country armed with cameras. With any luck, you might help us to find remnant populations of rare species before they go extinct!

3. Won’t I get stung?
Bumble bees are quite docile and will only sting when their nest is threatened or if they are cornered. Observing a bumble bee at a flower and taking pictures is generally a safe activity. Just be sure not to try to touch the bee or get too close. Be careful near nests and take photos from several feet (>1m) away if you come across one in your travels.

4. How do I know that I’m seeing a bumble bee?

  • Bumble bees are large bodied, fuzzy, yellow and black (sometimes with red or orange coloring as well) bees commonly found visiting flowers in gardens, open fields and mountain meadows. They are generally easy to recognize, but there are a few look-alike animals that can be confusing.
  • Bumble bees are most commonly confused with carpenter bees. You can tell the difference between the two because carpenter bees have shiny abdomens, while bumble bees’ abdomens are uniformly hairy.
  • There are a few large flies that also look like bumble bees. Flies only have one pair of wings (bumble bees have two) and usually rest with their wings out an angle (while bumble bees usually rest with their wings folded across their back).
  • See our bumble bee anatomy page!

5. How do I join?
Just create an account by clicking on “Sign In” at the top of this page.

6. What will you do with this information?
We will use the data from this project to gather baseline data about the distribution and abundance of North America’s bumble bees. When appropriate, based on historical data we will use this information to target conservation efforts for at-risk species. Information from this project will also help answer questions about how environmental changes are affecting bumble bee populations throughout North America.

7. What equipment do I need?
The most important piece of equipment for you to have is a digital camera, either stand alone, or on a cellular phone. Other equipment that could be helpful are plastic vials, an insect net, a GPS unit, and field guides. (Link to helpful photos page)

8. When do I look for bumble bees?
Depending on your location bumble bees are active from March through October (sometimes year-round in southern climates). They are most abundant when colonies are large in mid-summer through early fall. See each species’ profile page (link to list of species) for specific flight period information of the bumble bees in your region. Bumble bees are often active during their flight period most daylight hours; in the heat of the summer they seem to prefer the cooler morning and evening hours. They are generally most easily spotted and photographed while foraging on flowers for pollen and nectar.

9. What if I can’t ID my bee?
Don’t worry! As there are many species and many that look very similar, bumble bees can be difficult to identify. We have an online key that will help you to narrow the possibilities based on the location of your sighting and the color patterns on the bumble bee. We have a team of dedicated bumble bee experts that look at every data submission to verify all identifications. Even if you can’t find the precise species, there is a good chance that one of our experts will!

10. How do you verify the data?
We have a team of dedicated bumble bee experts that look at every data submission to verify all identifications. Even if you can’t find the precise species, there is a good chance that one of our experts will!

11. What is the bumble bee life-cycle?
Bumble bee queens overwinter under the ground in small cavities (usually in rotting wood or under loose soil and mulch). In spring these queens emerge, search for a nest site and then begin foraging for pollen and nectar. Nest sites can be above ground in tall grass or between man-made structures like cinder blocks or underground in abandoned rodent burrows. Queens then focus on laying eggs and rearing her developing young. Once her first eggs emerge as adults, these bees serve as her worker bees, gathering the pollen and nectar and feeding the brood while the foundress stays in the nest and lays more eggs. The colony continues to grow through the summer. As the summer wanes the colony switches from producing worker bees to producing new queens and males (often called drones). New queens and males leave the nest to find mates from other colonies. At the end of the season, the bumble bee colony dies off, including the foundress queen, workers and males. Only the new queens find a place to spend the winter, completing the cycle.

12. Besides taking pictures of bumble bees, what else can I do to help?

  • Create habitat! You can find more information about how to create bumble bee habitat at www.xerces.org/bumblebees.
  • Support local and organic agriculture. Many pesticides are harmful to bumblebee colonies and many vegetable and fruit plants provide great food sources for bees.
  • Spread the word! Many people are afraid of bumble bees and other insects. Let your friends and family know how important they are and encourage them to take photos too!

13. Can I submit pictures of other bees?
At this time we are only collecting bumble bee records. For other bees, please see BugGuide or the Great Sunflower Project.

14. Are some photos better than others for bumble bee ID?
Yes. To learn more about photographing bees, click here. There is also anatomy information to help you with your ID skills here.

15. What is a cuckoo bumble bee?
Cuckoo bumble bees are nest parasites of other bumble bee species. They emerge later and instead of founding their own nest, cuckoo bees usurp the nest and displace the queen of another species. Female cuckoo bumble bees have a thick exoskeleton, as well as powerful mandibles and stinger, which make them difficult for the foundress queen to ward off. If the cuckoo bee is successful in displacing the queen, she uses the worker force of the host species to raise her own offspring [there are no worker cuckoo bees, they are all reproductive females (but without pollen collecting baskets), or males]. However, a large worker force can aid the foundress queen in nest defense. Thus, the cuckoo bee must find a nest to attack that is small enough to overcome, but large enough to gather pollen and nectar for her offspring.