The scientific name for a bumble bee is Bombus, we will have to use this name when talking about different species of bumblebees because some of them don’t have a common name.
The tricolored bumblebee (Bombus ternarius) is very striking, with a bright band of orange in its abdomen alternating with the white and black of the rest of its body. As I said, it is easy to make mistakes; there are some similarly colored ones, such as the well named red belted bumble bee (Bombus rufocinctus). As if that wasn’t enough there are also a couple of more species with a similar bright orange belt on their abdomens: Bombus huntii and Bombus melanopygus.
A very common bumble bee is the impatient bumblebee, Bombus impatiens; I guess that it gets its name for its quick and very active movements, but, please, don’t quote me. Its other name is common eastern bumble bee, which is self explanatory. If you live in the eastern United States that is the one that you see most often.
It is possible to mistake the impatient bumble bee with the brownbelted bumble bee or Bombus griseocollis. Although in this case a reddish touch, visible in some cases, sets it apart. Another one that I find somewhat similar to the last two is the twospotted bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus).
Ironically, the confusing bumble bee (Bombus perplexus) doesn’t look confusing to me. It seems to have more yellow and less black than most of them.
Sometimes you just can’t be certain and simply have to guess between two or more species, such as Bombus vagans, perplexus, or sandersoni. This is the case more often than not.
Not all bumble bees are industrious pollen collectors and caretakers of their babies. Some have taken the easy way out. They victimize their relatives, other bumblebees, and lay their eggs on their nests or take possession of their colonies and use the workers of their victims as servants.
There are several species of these cuckoos; they get this name because their behavior is so similar to that of cuckoo birds. They are so used to this easy life style that they have lost their pollen baskets and their ability to build nests; on the other hand they have become quite warrior-like to subdue their hosts.
They also have become adept at imitating the appearance of some of their victims, making it harder for other bumble bees as well as for human observers to tell the difference.
Here are two of these cuckoo bumble bees, the Fernald cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus fernaldae) above left and the lemon cuckoo (Bombus citrinus) right.
The Bumble bee organization has put up a very nice chart to help recognize species of North american bumble bees