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There are about 19 different species of bumblebee (and six species of cuckoo bumblebees) found in the UK, 66 in Europe and around 250 in the world.

Is It A Bumblebee?
Discover The Bumblebee
Cuckoo Bumblebees
Other Bees

A note on the identification of Bombus muscorum and
B. pascuorum

The two brown carder bees we have in Scotland are the two most difficult Bombus to distinguish in the field, and are almost as difficult to separate in the hand. In part this stems from the fact that the distinction given in Alford’s keys and in all published keys since (presence or absence of black hairs on the abdomen) is unreliable, at least in Scotland.

Known distribution:
B. pascuorum is common over all of Scotland except for Shetland, the Western Isles, some of the Orkney islands, and some of the Inner Hebrides. B. muscorum is the only one to occur on the Western Isles and Shetland (as distinctive races), and is found in Orkney, many of the Inner Hebrides, and sparingly on the mainland where it is rare. Where they occur together, the two species will forage in the same place. B. muscorum will more frequently be found on heather moor than pascuorum. The initial supposition should be that on the mainland any brown carder bee is pascuorum, except on the north and west coasts or in the hills. Except on Shetland and the Western Isles, care must be taken to establish which of the two species is present before it is recorded definitively. For the HBRG Atlas scheme I have asked that a specimen is provided for any record of muscorum.

Both species are essentially all brown, the thorax usually being (sometimes strongly) foxy red and the abdomen paler. There is no consistent difference between the thorax colour of the two species on the mainland, though the island muscorum are very disctinctively dark on the thorax. On average, queen muscorum are probably slightly larger than pascuorum, but size is not a reliable character.

Observations of specimens from the mainland and Orkney by John Crossley and myself have established that some muscorum do have black hairs on the abdomen, while some pascuorum do not have any that are visible even under the binocular microscope. This character, the favoured one in published keys, is therefore not reliable, though any specimen with plentiful black hairs on the sides of the abdomen will be pascuorum.

The only reliable objective distinction is in the genitalia of the male and sting sheath of the female. It is therefore important that specimens sent for confirmation have these parts exposed. Unfortunately, examination of the genitalia is usually, and of the sting sheath always, fatal for the bee, so it is not to be used too freely.

I have established that, with practice, it is possible confidently to distinguish the species in the field by the colour of the abdomen. B. muscorum (both sexes) has a distinctly silvery wash on the abdomen, which is very obvious when one knows what to look for, and is very different from the buff or brown wash of pascuorum. Even this is not to be used on occasional bleached and worn individuals. Curiously, this is not nearly as easy to see in museum specimens, possibly in part due to fading after death.

For field recognition, it should be obvious if two species of carder are present together, and a specimen of each type (silvery and brown wash) taken for confirmation. If only one appears to be present, then only one specimen need be provided if the species is uncertain. It is important not to make definitive identifications on probability alone.

Murdo Macdonald

Common names of the Bumblebees of northern Scotland 





B. soroeensis

Broken-belted Bumblebee

B. lucorum

White-tailed Bumblebee

B. magnus

Northern White-tailed Bumblebee

B. terrestris

Buff-tailed Bumblebee

B. jonellus

Heath Bumblebee

B. monticola

Bilberry Bumblebee

B. pratorum

Early Bumblebee

B. lapidarius

Red-tailed Bumblebee

B. hortorum

Garden Bumblebee

B. muscorum

Moss Carder Bee

B. pascuorum

Common Carder Bee

B. distinguendus

Great Yellow Bumblebee

B. ruderarius

Red-shanked Bumblebee

P. bohemicus

Gypsy Cuckoo-bee

P. barbutellus

Barbut’s Cuckoo-bee


Field Cuckoo-bee

P. sylvestris

Woodland Cuckoo-bee

Bumblebee Conservation Trust
About Bumblebees
Bumblebee Identification
Bumblebee Pages

7 September 09
Highland Council Ranger Discovers New Site For Rare Bumblebee
The Great Yellow Bumblebee, one of Britain’s rarest bee species, has bucked recent gloomy trends and had a bumper summer in Scotland this year. Paul Castle, The Highland Council’s North Sutherland Ranger, has been involved with the Great Yellow Bumblebee for several years and this year has discovered two previously unrecorded sites for this rare Bumblebee at Melvich and Reay along the north coast Delighted with his discovery, Paul said: "2009 has been an exciting summer for bumblebees.  These new sites mean we have now linked the Caithness and Sutherland populations.  It was particularly pleasing following last season when, despite searching, I never saw a single Great Yellow Bumblebee.  It's great to know this vulnerable mainland population is able to recover from an apparently disastrous season."

29 May 09
Great Yellow Bumblebee Blog - Can You Report Sightings and Send Photos
Bob Dawson the Scottish Conservation Officer with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has been in touch to ask for help from everyone in notifying sightings or sending photos of this rare bee. Caithness and Sutherland are the last places on the UK mainland where this rare bee can be found, so are particularly special. It would be great to reach as many people as possible to raise awareness of the bee and encourage people to look out for it, as it will visit gardens.  He said, "I was up in Caithness at the start of Scottish Biodiversity Week and did a talk at the Park Hotel in Thurso. I will be up again in the summer."
The blog is at

Great Yellow Bumblebee - Species Action Framework - SNH
Species Action Plan
Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus)

Do You Want To Help Track Bumblebees?
Guide to the Field Identification of Highland Bumblebees
for the HBRG Bumblebee Atlas Scheme

10 August 2003

Field Club Ready To Find Bumblebees

Help Save The Bumblebee
Not so very long ago, bumblebees were prolific and a feature of the British countryside.  Today, the situation is very different.  In recent decades, the continuing disappearance of large tracts of suitable farmland habitat has increasingly put their survival under threat.  One species has been declared extinct in the last two years.  another has become extinct along the whole of the south coast of England, where formerly it was common and widespread.  Together with three other species, it has also disappeared from over 70% of its pre-1970 haunts.  Today, only six out of sixteen species are to be found easily - and even then in smaller numbers.  Much of the north of Scotland remains unchecked for Bumblebees
However all is not lost
A few simple actions like planting grant aided flower-rich field margins can improve things greatly for this valuable friend to the farmer and the environment.
The benefits of the bumblebee to farmers
Their ability to pollinate at lower temperatures and in poorer weather conditions than honeybees.
The important role they have to play in legume pollination
Their ability to improve seed yields of fodder beans
A contribution towards conservation and the positive spin offs for farmers.
The benefits of providing grant aided flower-rich field margins
Helps to conserve bumblebees and other beneficial insects
Provides a habitat for such threatened farmland birds as Yellowhammers, Grey Partridges, Skylarks and Barn Owls
An extra source of nutritious animal food supply, when cropped or grazed
Improved soil structure, when ploughed in.

What do bumblebees need from the environment?
Bumblebee colonies are started anew at the beginning of each season by a single queen which has hibernated in the ground during the winter.  The queen seeks out a suitable location or the new colony.  while there may be plenty of potential nests sites - perhaps an abandoned mouse hole or shrew's nest -whether or not the colony survives the first perilous weeks will depend on the quality of the surrounding forage.

The colony needs both nectar as a fuel for the adult and pollen for the developing larvae.  Bumblebees will fly half a mile or more from the nest to find these, searching for new supplies when the old ones run out.  however, a constant supply of food must always be present in the foraging area during the lifespan of the colony, between April and September.
Fortunately the favoured forage plants are widespread and not difficult to grow.  these include such common species as white Dead-nettle, Red and white Clovers, Common Bird's-foot Trefoil and Black Knapweed.

At the end of its life, the colony produces new males and females, and after mating, the new queens hibernate.

RSPB Scotland - 16th September 2005
Action plan to please the birds and the bees - Pioneering project to protect rare bee and help birds into the bargain
A £300,000 conservation project to conserve the increasingly rare Great Yellow Bumblebee is being launched by RSPB Scotland in partnership with Glasgow Natural History Society and the Aculeate Conservation Group.
Experts are hoping that by combining their knowledge they can improve the lot of this particular bee whose numbers have dropped markedly in the past century. Historically found all over Britain, it is now confined to the Western Isles, Coll, Tiree, Orkney and a few sites in Caithness & Sutherland from Wick to Kinlochbervie.
The decline in the bee’s range is closely tied to the loss of habitats known as “machair” grassland - visually stunning, calcium-rich carpets of spring and summer flowers that typify the Hebrides. Sadly, this rare commodity is now slowly disappearing because of the intensification of farming practices in some areas.
There is a striking similarity between the decline of the Great Yellow Bumblebee and the decline of the corncrake, a secretive bird which spends most of its time hidden in tall vegetation. Like the bee, it too is a formerly widespread species which has contracted to the “machair” and traditional crofting areas. The causes of the respective declines are likely to be linked and now it is hoped that the bee conservation project will also help the corncrake.