Spring has finally sprung, and bumble bee queens are starting to emerge!
After a long overwintering, bumble bee queens emerge from their resting spots and begin to look for a new home for their annual colony (nest searching) and forage. They’re hungry after all that time sleeping! The exact timing of emergence varies based on species, geography, and elevation; however, there are some consistently early risers to keep a lookout for this spring. Here are some bumble bee species you are likely to see out and about in early spring, depending on where you are in Canada.

Western Canada – Western bumble bee (bombus occidentalis)

While this species used to be a common one to see in early spring, western bumble bee populations have been declining since the late 1990s. In 2014, the western bumble bee subspecies occidentalis was assessed as Threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Wildlife Preservation Canada is currently developing reliable conservation breeding techniques, which will hopefully be used to help recover western bumble bee populations in the future.

Western bumble bee queen on a blanket flower (Giallardia spp.). Photo: T. Harrison

Black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanpygus)

Also known as the black tail bumble bee or the orange-rumped bumble bee, the black-tailed bumble bee is most abundant throughout the eastern United States and north into British Columbia. There have also been records of disjunct populations in the Arctic, northern Ontario, Quebec, and maritime New Brunswick. Black-tailed bumble bees are one of the earliest species in western Canada to start nesting and producing males in the spring.

Three more species of bumble bees you may see emerging early in western Canada are:

  • Yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii)
  • Hunt’s bumble bee (Bombus huntii)
  • Two-form bumble bee (Bombus bifarius)

Black-tailed bumble bee queen on willow. Photo: T. Harrison

Central Canada – Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus)

The two-spotted bumble bee is one of the earliest species to emerge in the spring. They get their name from the two yellow spots found on their abdomen. Sometimes the two spots may also appear as a W-shape. Populations of two-spotted bumble bees are stable and they are a very common species in Southern Ontario. You will likely find these early-emerging bumble bees foraging on spring ephemerals.

Two-spotted bumble bee queen. Photo: T. Harrison

Yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola)

Like the western bumble bee, yellow-banded bumble bees have been in decline since the late 1990s, mainly in the southern parts of their range. In 2015, the yellow-banded bumble bee was listed as a species of Special Concern in Canada. That is why the yellow-banded bumble bee is one of the focal species of Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Bumble Bee Recovery Program. This spring, you are much more likely to spot a yellow-banded bumble bee in the northern portions of their range, where their populations have remained much more stable.

Three other species of bumble bees you may see emerging early in central Canada are:

  • Common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)
  • Tri-coloured bumble bee (Bombus ternarius)
  • Half-black bumble bee (Bombus vagans)

Yellow-banded bumble bee queen on a willow tree. Photo: T. Harrison

Eastern Canada – Tri-coloured bumble bee (Bombus ternarius)

While they can be found throughout their range, tri-coloured bumble bees are most common in the northeast boreal forest regions of Canada. They can be easily recognized by the distinct colour pattern on their abdomen and the dark wedge-like pattern on their thorax. In 2021, Wildlife Preservation Canada collected tri-coloured bumble bee queens in Ontario as part of the conservation breeding program to enhance knowledge on bumble bee collection and rearing methods. The knowledge gained from working with this common species will be useful in future work with at-risk species.

Tri-coloured bumble bee queen. Photo: T. Harrison

Common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)

As the name suggests, the common eastern bumble bee is a common species and is found throughout Eastern North America. In recent decades, their range has expanded further into eastern Canada and even in some parts of western Canada. Their wide range expansion is mainly due to them being transported for commercial pollination. In addition to this range expansion, populations within their historical range have also increased. Due to their abundance, the common eastern bumble bee was collected in 2021 for Wildlife Preservation Canada’s conservation breeding program, alongside the tri-colored bumble bee and the brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis).

Three other species of bumble bee you may see emering early in Eastern Canada are:

  • Yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola)
  • Two-spotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus)
  • Yellow bumble bee (Bombus fervidus)

Common eastern bumble bee queen. Photo: T. Harrison

Now you know what to look for!

Now that you know what bumble bees to expect in early spring, it’s time to get out there and start looking! Don’t forget to document any bumble bees you see and report them to Bumble Bee Watch and get experts to confirm your identifications! Bumble Bee Watch helps track bumble bee populations, which is especially important for at-risk species, like the western bumble bee and the yellow-banded bumble bee. Every bumble bee record, especially in the early spring, is a meaningful contribution to the conservation of our beautiful bumbles!

Stacey Evans

Native Pollinator Initiative

Stacey is a student from Fleming College’s Ecosystem Management Technician program, where she has learned about monitoring, assessing, and managing ecosystem health. She is currently completing a volunteer field placement with WPC’s Native Pollinator Initiative. Stacey has a passion for pollinators and hopes to learn more about them and their integral role in ecosystems.