Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Bombus muscorum – moss carder bee

Bombus muscorum

Bombus muscorum (Linnaeus)
Family: Apidae

Bumblebees were once a familiar sight in the countryside, but they have declined significantly in abundance. The main reason for this decline is the loss of habitat especially the permanent flower-rich places that they need to forage in. Bumblebees are important pollinators of many plants and the loss of these bees may have unforeseen consequences.

In brief

  • A brightly-coloured, blonde yellow and red-brown bumblebee
  • Nests are started in early summer
  • The nests are built on the ground in mossy vegetation
  • Found on sand hills, bogs and heaths
  • Declining in Ireland and much less common than in the past

Species description
This is a yellow and brown coloured bumblebee. Fresh adults are brightly coloured with a pale yellow abdomen and reddish brown thorax.

Life cycle
Bees are insects which construct nests which they provision with honey and nectar. They are some of the most fascinating of insects and, because of their role in pollination, one of the most important. The best known bees are the social species honey and bumblebees but most are non-social, solitary species. Bumblebees are amongst the most familiar of Irish insects. The hairy body, colourful appearance and their busy and unthreatening behaviour make them appealing to the general public. Nests of bumblebees are started each year by an overwintered queen. She will choose a nest site and then construct and provision a few cells from which the first generation of workers will emerge. From then on, the queen stays in the nest and is cared for by the workers who take on all the duties of nest maintainance and the rearing of the brood. Workers are reared first, but then in summer males and new queens are produced. Once these leave the nest the workers and old queen die, leaving only mated queens to survive the winter.
The life cycle of Bombus muscorum follows this pattern. Nests are started in May or June and the new generation of queens and males appear in late July and August. The nests of B. muscorum are built above ground in the surface layer of vegetation.

Similar species
The species is most similar to the common bumblebee, Bombus pascuorum. Both are brown haired, but the coloring of this species is more uniform especially on the abdomen. However due to the variation in appearance according to the age and sex of the individual, close examination is required to confirm identification.

How to see this species
This species is found in two types of sites, unimproved flower-rich grassland on the coast and in wetlands and bogs. Foraging bees can be wide ranging and may visit flowers several kilometres from their nest site. The best areas for bumblebees are on flower-rich patches of habitat. Amongst the most attractive species are Red Clover (which will attract workers) and Common Knapweed which is a favourite food plant of the newly emerged queens and males.

Current status
In Northern Ireland this has been recorded from the coasts of Co. Londonderry, Antrim and Down and inland in isolated localities in Co. Armagh and Fermanagh. Unaccountably, there have been no records from Tyrone, but it could occur on the blanket bog areas in the west of the county.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?
This is declining species throughout its Irish range. The species was assessed as near threatened on the Irish red list.

Threats/Causes of decline
The main cause of decline in this bee is considered to the loss of habitat. Bumblebees forage over large areas to gather food and need a continuous supply of flowers to support their populations. They are very sensitive to the loss of feeding and nesting sites.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • Much of the coast of North Londonderry Antrim are designated as SACs
  • The Outer Ards coast is designated as an ASSI
  • Murlough is an ASSI managed by the National Trust

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Survey suitable sites to locate extant populations and, if any are found, ensure the population is maintained

What you can do
Discovering surviving populations of the bee is essential. There is also a need to gather Information on its habitat and ecology in Northern Ireland. This requires skilled observers and learning how to identify the species of Irish bee is a way you as an individual can make a valuable contribution. The decline of all species of bees should concern us as they are primary pollinators of many wild plants.

Further information

National Biodiversity Data Centre

Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society

Photographs of Wild bees and wasps

Baldock, D. (2008). The Bees of Surrey. Surrey Wildlife Trust, Woking.

This is a good illustrated account of the bees of Surrey, which includes most of the Irish bees
Fitzpatrick ., Murray T.E., Byrne A., Paxton R.J. and Brown M.J.F. (2006). Regional Red List of Irish Bees, Report to National Parks and Wildlife Service (Ireland) and Environment and Heritage Service (N. Ireland).

Text written by:
Brian Nelson

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database