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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004

2000 survey results

Shetland Biological Records Centre



Bumblebees in Shetland

Bumblebees are well known and popular insects. They are larger, more rotund, and more colourful than honeybees. They are also more friendly than honeybees, and will only sting when severely molested. As well as their colour, they are conspicuous by their deep buzzing sound; the scientific name of the `true' bumblebees, Bombus, means `booming'.

Right - Shetland Bumblebee Bombus muscorum

In Shetland, four species of bumblebees are known to occur today. Another species has been recorded only once, in Bressay in 1926, and is thought to be extinct; although we cannot be sure. Two of the species which occur in Shetland are distinct sub-species. The Small Heath Bumblebee (Bombus jonellus vogti) only occurs in Shetland, whilst the distinctive `Shetland' Bumblebee (Bombus muscorum agricolae) is a form that occurs in both Shetland and the Western Isles.

Bumblebees are not just a colourful part of our insect fauna, they are important pollinators of certain plant species and, in Shetland, may be a useful indicator of general environmental quality. For example, the Small Heath Bumblebee favours better quality moorland, where the heather flowers more freely. The Shetland Bumblebee also requires high densities of flowers to maintain a healthy population, so it is seriously affected by overgrazing and reseeding. The best way to attract bumblebees to your garden is therefore to plant lots of flowers!

Anecdotal evidence suggests that bumblebees have declined in Shetland over recent decades, presumably as a result of changing agricultural practices. SBRC would like to know much more about the distribution and abundance of Shetland's bumblebees today, so that we have better baseline data against which to monitor future changes. We would like to receive all records of bumblebees in Shetland, to improve our understanding of this fascinating group.

How to Identify Bumblebees in Shetland

First of all, is it a bumblebee? The Honey Bee is not known to occur naturally in Shetland, although there are several hives kept on Mainland. A more likely source of potential confusion are certain hoverflies, which can look extremely similar to bumblebees. If in doubt, capture the insect in a transparent pot (such as a jam jar) and look closely at the wings. Hoverflies, being true flies, have only one pair of wings attached to the thorax, whereas bumblebees have two pairs, although the hind wings are often `zipped' to the fore-wings in a row of hooks.


This is a common visitor to gardens and crofting land throughout Shetland, except Fair Isle. It is the earliest species to appear in Shetland in spring, and can be seen anytime between April and September. The Northern White-tail is a very neat, clean-looking species. It has a black thorax with a single yellow band at the front. The abdomen has another yellow band, and a white tail; hence this is Shetland's only `double-banded white-tail'.


The subspecies vogti is endemic to Shetland. It is a scarce species, closely associated with heather moorland, and is most frequently seen in July and August (when heather is flowering). It has a black thorax, with yellow bands at the front and back. There is a third yellow band on the abdomen, adjacent to the thorax, and a whitish or buff tail. This is one of two species of `triple-banded white-tail' in Shetland. However, Small Heath Bumblebee has a short face, roughly only as long as it is wide (see diagram below).

Bombus hortorum                   Bombus jonellus

GARDEN BUMBLEBEE (Bombus hortorum)

Another scarce bumblebee in Shetland, almost always found around gardens or crops between June    and August, but more widespread than the previous species. Garden Bumblebee is another `triple-banded white-tail', superficially similar to the previous species. Apart from where it is found (in gardens rather than on the hills) it is best told by its longer face, obviously longer than it is wide (see diagram).

`SHETLAND' BUMBLEBEE (Bombus muscorum)

A common species, found in a variety of habitats throughout Shetland, between May and October. The Shetland subspecies agricolae is also found in the Outer Hebrides. The Shetland Bumblebee is very distinctive, having a thorax that is completely orange, which can be seen easily in flight as well as at rest.

GREAT YELLOW BUMBLEBEE (Bombus distinguendus)

This is a species which is presumed extinct in Shetland, with no sightings in the past 75 years. It is a rare and declining species throughout the UK, most frequently recorded in north and west Scotland. Bombus distinguendus has an abdomen which is brownish-yellow all over (i.e. without a distinct yellow band at the front), while the thorax is similarly brownish-yellow (rather than yellow), with a black or grey band between the wings. Any sighting in Shetland would be extremely significant, and would need good supporting evidence (a photo or a specimen). It should be quickly reported to SBRC, so that it may be followed up, or confirmed where appropriate.


Pictures - left to right, top to bottom
Northern White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus magnus)
Small Heath Bumblebee (Bombus jonellus)
Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum)
'Shetland' Bumblebee (Bombus muscorum)
Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus)
Colour illustrations Tony Hopkins, from `Bumblebees' by O. E. Prys Jones & S. A. Corbet. Richmond Publishing Co. Ltd.

Shetland Biological Records Centre is keen to find out more about Shetland's bumblebees. Please help us by sending us ALL your sightings of these insects in Shetland. Include the species, location (with a grid reference if you can), date and the habitat the bumblebee was seen in (e.g. moorland, garden, etc.).

Please send your records to : SBRC, Shetland Amenity Trust, Garthspool, Lerwick, Shetland. Tel. (01595) 694688. Email:


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