• Bombus;
  • biogeography;
  • camouflage;
  • convergence;
  • temperature regulation;
  • warning coloration

Bumblebee colour patterns can be highly variable within species, but are often closely similar among species. The present study takes a quantitative approach to survey bumblebee colour patterns in order to address some of the most basic questions concerning resemblances: (1) do colour-pattern groups exist; (2) are species within colour-pattern groups geographically clumped; and (3) are some colour-pattern groups associated with particular kinds of habitat? The results using data for 632 worker patterns from all of the world’s bumblebee species show that: (1) there are many repeating colour patterns, forming relatively few groups of species with similar patterns; (2) colour-pattern groups can be recognized using simple rules; and (3) species within the 24 largest colour-pattern groups are significantly aggregated in particular areas of the world. Three principal divisions of colour-pattern groups are associated with three likely functions: (1) the darkest bumblebees are associated primarily with the tropics, where a thermoregulatory function is suggested; (2) the palest bumblebees are associated with intermediate northern latitudes, where a cryptic function in drying grasslands is suggested; and (3) the intermediate, strongly banded bumblebees are widespread, although these patterns predominate where banding may have advantages as collective warning signals to predators (Müllerian mimicry). Further studies are needed to test these explanations. © The Natural History Museum, London. Journal compilation © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 92, 97–118.