Bumblebees at the National Museums Collection Centre

Ashleigh Whiffin, Assistant Curator of Entomology, National Museums Scotland, lifts the lid on an insect collection which resides at the National Museums Collection Centre and contains over two-million insect specimens.

Of the 270 different bee species found in the UK, just 24 of them are bumblebees. Only  19 of these are found in Scotland, so you might think as there’s relatively few of them it would be easy to tell them apart, right? Well it’s not always the case…

Despite their size, bumblebees can be difficult to identify. With practise some species can be recognised in the field; but for others a voucher specimen and a microscope are required. In fact, for many species external features alone won’t do the job and the genitalia must be dissected out! The voucher specimens are pinned, dried and vital labels are added. The labels contain all the information about where and when the specimens were collected – and form concrete evidence that a particularly species occurred at a certain location, at that point in time.

ashleigh 1

Specimens of the Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascourum) in the collection, ©National Museums Scotland.

National Museums Scotland’s entomology collection resides at the National Museums Collection Centre and contains over 2 million insect specimens. Within this, we have approximately 6300 British bumblebees. The specimens are housed in trays, within drawers, which are stored in purpose-built cabinets to protect them from light and potential pests.

ashleigh 2

A drawer of Bombus pascourum specimens from the collection, ©National Museums Scotland.

The insect collection is almost 200 years in the making. Some of our oldest British Bombus specimens are from the collection of Dr R.K. Greville, accqired by the museum in 1858. The collection has developed over the years via specimen donations from local collectors, as well as active collecting by museum staff. Some of the most modern specimens are of a fairly recent newcomer to Scotland, the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). The latest specimen was infact collected in Edinburgh just last year, on site at NMCC! This non-native bumblebee, was discovered in Scotland back in 2013 and is continuing to spread North. It’s a distinctive species, the only one with a reddish-brown thorax, black abdomen and a white tail.

While the Tree Bumblebee is successfully spreading, populations of other bumblebees are facing decline. The Great Yellow Bumblebee, Bombus distinguendus, is one of our rarest bumblebees in the UK, which has faced a decline of 80% in the last century. Once found across the UK, it is now restricted to Northern Scotland (Caithness, The Uists & Orkney) where it is sustained by flower-rich machair. I was fortunate to see one during August 2017 on a fieldwork trip to Orkney. Unfortunately, the loss of flower-rich meadows and intensification of farming practise have played a key part in the decline of this bumblebee.

ashleight 4b

A very compliant male Great Yellow Bumblebee found at the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney (2017), ©National Museums Scotland.

On average, we host 170 visitors a year to the entomology collection at NMCC. First and foremost the collection is a research collection – a library of insects and their associated data. When this data is extracted it can provide useful information on biodiversity and species distribution. Perhaps this was in the minds of collectors such as Greville, when collecting specimens back in the 19th century – documenting insect biodiversity for future use. Perhaps not. What those collectors could certainly not forsee was the discovery of DNA and subsequent applications it has for taxonomic work on insects. DNA sequencing techniques are constantly improving and scientists are now able to extract good quality DNA samples from partial leg fragments. This is enabling the collection to be used in a completely different way and unlocking even more information that was originally thought possible by previous curators.

The collection is currently being used by London researchers from Imperial College and the Natural History Museum to study bumblebee declines. This NERC funded research, lead by Dr Richard Gill (IC) & Prof Ian Barnes (NHM), is using museum collections from across the UK to investigate how a century of land use change in the UK has affected wild bumblebee populations. Postdoctoral researcher Dr Andres Arce has been visiting our collection and imaging specimens for use in this research. As well as answering some important scientific questions, we hope the project will help increase the accessibility of our collections and further promote their use for research purposes.

ashleight 5

Dr Andres Arce (Imperial College London) – preparing specimens for imaging/data capture, ©National Museums Scotland.

Although research is the focus, the collection has many other uses too. It often acts as an identification resource for local entomologists and students who can examine the specimens for comparison. It provides inspiration and reference material for artists and is used for also education. Sometimes specimens from the collection are taken to public events at the main museum or other NMS sites, such as the Go Wild events hosted at the Museum of Rural Life. These provide an opportunity to use the collection to educate and inspire the next generation.

ashleigh 6

Ashleigh teaching some of the younger visitors about bees, ©Ruth Armstrong Photography

If you are struggling with bumblebee identification (or any other groups of British insects) and would like to visit the collection, then get in touch. The collection is accessible by appointment only, and visits can be arranged by contacting us via the NMS website. The winter months are an ideal time to swat up on your identification skills, so you’re ready when the bees re-appear in the spring.

The Great Yellow in peril

Of all the bumblebees in Scotland – and at the last count there were around 22 species – the Great Yellow is the one that gives greatest cause for concern. One hundred years ago the Great Yellow Bumblebee was found in many places across Britain, today it is confined to Scotland. Even then it is only found in parts of the Western Isles, Orkney, Coll & Tiree, and lowland Caithness, with a very small presence on the coastal fringes of Sutherland.


The decline of the Great Yellow is not a new story.  Its decline has been noted since the 1960s and appears to coincide with changes in land use and fewer of the flowers it depends on being present. There is a clear correlation between its presence today and low intensity crofting, and that type of farming is intimately associated with knapweeds, clovers and vetches. It is the kind of habitat and farming practice we associate with machair.

Machair grassland, Benbecula, Western Isles Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The bees love the flower-rich machair grasslands in the Western Isles, which in turn benefit from the traditional farming practices for survival. By limiting grazing and avoiding cutting flowers in summer the agricultural practices of the areas undoubtedly help the Great Yellow Bumblebee.

As part of Scotland’s commitment to protecting biodiversity, machair habitat is eligible for special agricultural funding. The great yellow bumblebee was indeed one of the species which received additional attention through the Species Action Framework.

Our largest bumblebee, the plight of the Great Yellow struck a chord in Caithness where the northerly region took the insect to its heart. This was clear when the town of Thurso championed the Great Yellow and by a mixture of education, and wide-ranging practical actions set about creating and managing habitats that would help it survive.


The most southerly populations of Great Yellow that we are aware of in Scotland are found in Coll and Tiree. Coll can be a wildflower haven in summer and is home to some fabulous species. Birds in particular draw visitors like a magnet. The secretive corncrake, noisy lapwings and powerful sea eagle can all be spotted in this area. On Tiree, the Community Development Trust, together with RSPB, crofters and local volunteers have been working hard to create a haven for ‘the great yellow’.  This has taken many forms with recording sightings and issuing wild flower seed packs amongst the successful approaches.

There was good news recently with a funding bid for Tiree’s great yellow bumblebee project being awarded £2,000 from Tesco Bags of Help fund. The money will support the community to monitor and record this very rare bumblebee and to increase and improve habitat to help ensure the survival of Great Yellow Bumblebees on Tiree. Indeed the project was shortlisted for the prestigious Nature of Scotland Awards 2018.


It isn’t usually until mid to late-May that the queen Great Yellow emerges from hibernation, in a cool summer it may even be June. This arrival will likely coincide with the availability of bird’s-foot trefoil, vetches and thistles. She will stock up on reserves then move to an underground nest fairly soon afterwards (this is often an abandoned mammal nesting hole, which in some cases may have nesting material already in situ) but even at the peak her nest will likely only contain tens of workers.

These workers are likely to be on the wing from mid-July onwards and their likely food supply will feature knapweed and red clover. At the end of the season, around September, the old queen and the workers die with the new young queens heading off to hibernate underground.

A spectacular bee, it is entirely yellow except for a black band on the top of the thorax between the wing bases and black patches below the wing bases. Queens are large and have a fairly distinctive long face rather like a carder bee.


So what can be done to halt the decline in numbers of the Great Yellow Bumblebee in Scotland? Habitat is crucial, which points to maintaining the distinctive flower-rich machair habitat. This will give food, nesting and wintering sites. A visit to the Balranald Nature Reserve run by the RSPB offers an insight into this low intensity form of farming which is sympathetic to the survival of machair pasture. Allied to this, it is likely that the area will continue with low pesticide usage and the avoidance of exposure to managed bees or the large-scale introduction of honey bees.
Further information:

Pollinator Strategy for Scotland

Buglife website 

Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Tiree’s great yellow bumblebee project

Polli-nation is a winner

For the last three years, 59 schools in Scotland have been working hard to make their school grounds pollinator-friendly. They have been taking part in a Learning through Landscapes (LtL) HLF-funded project which has had the dual aims of effecting culture change by engaging and enthusing children and young people to protect pollinating insects whilst increasing the abundance and diversity of pollinating insects in school grounds and local community spaces.  As project coordinator, Mary Jackson’s guest blog provides in an insight to this inspirational project.

bee survey hyndland secondary

Hyndland Secondary School bee survey proved popular

What’s been happening in Scottish schools?
Schools started back in the summer of 2016 by surveying their grounds or local spaces using a project specific survey. This was designed by project partners and produced by FSC to see which pollinating insects they could find. These results were uploaded to the OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) website so that they could be analysed by project partners, including Buglife and Butterfly Conservation.

The next step for the schools was to learn more about pollinating insects, why they are important and what would help support these often hungry and homeless insects that are so under threat. Pupils researched the best food sources and habitats to attract the pollinating insects and planned changes to their grounds.

alexandra parade bug hotel

Pupils of Alexandra Parade Primary School with their bug hotel

With the help of LtL Scotland Project Officers and facilitators, teachers, parents, experts (including specialist Bumblebee Conservation Trust in Scotland support) and volunteers, Scottish primary and secondary pupils transformed their grounds into pollinator-friendly spaces.

Later this year we will be producing a maintenance guide for schools to help them ensure their grounds remain pollinator-friendly. For more information on this please email enquiries@ltl.org.uk .

In the summer of 2018, schools returned to their grounds to repeat their original survey. Those results are currently being analysed and you can be among the first to hear if there are now more pollinators in Scottish schools by joining us for a webinar from 4-5pm on 7th February. There will also be an overview of the project and feedback from the University of Stirling who have been evaluating how well schools have engaged with this citizen science project.

pennyburn ps seedlings (2)

Glasgow & Penyburn Primary School, Kilwinning making seedballs

Join us for a webinar
To sign up for the webinar please use the following link:


Schools and other groups who want to make their patch pollinator-friendly can find loads of resources on the project website at www.polli-nation.co.uk. You can also undertake the survey and add your data to the national findings.

pollination logo

Success of the project
In 2018 Polli:Nation won the environment section of the National Lottery Awards but the biggest measure of success has been the impact on the pupils who have taken part.

‘I’ve learned about what an important job bees do, and I didn’t even
know that if
bees didn’t do their job, or just didn’t want to do it, or
we just get rid of them, then we wouldn’t have any honey, we wouldn’t
have any chocolate, we wouldn’t have any vegetables…’
– P6 pupil, Scotland

‘I didn’t know there was, like, different pollinators. I didn’t know that
butterflies and moths and flies were pollinators. I know the different
bees, like honey bee, the bumble bee, but I didn’t know moths and
that they were pollinators.’
– P7 pupil, Scotland

Grounds for Learning is the operational name of The Learning through Landscapes Trust in Scotland

Learning through Landscapes vision is that every child benefits from stimulating outdoor learning and play in their education.

Plan to plant

Spring and summer are long gone and the colder grip of winter is here, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to do our bit for pollinators.  Now is the time to plan ahead and ensure that your garden or outdoor space is ready to help our important pollinating insects. Why not make it your New Year resolution to make your garden, window ledges or local green space more pollinator friendly? 

Bees, and other pollinators, are an essential part of a healthy environment. They make a significant contribution to our economy by pollinating fruit and vegetables, with a considerable amount of the food we eat relying on pollination. On top of that, they increase our enjoyment of the outdoors, and contibute to our health and well-being by creating higher quality greenspace (pollinating many of our favourite plants) while helping to bring people closer to nature.

A key way in which we can help pollinators is to ensure we have a variety of flowering plants, including trees and shrubs, in bloom at different times of the year. This takes a little planning, but isn’t difficult to achieve. What’s more, you don’t need a garden to contribute as window boxes, planters or pots can be equally useful. By providing food for pollinators, you will also be helping other wildlife such as birds and small mammals.  Most plants beneficial to pollinators often benefit other animals through seeds and fruits as a result of pollination.

Bees prefer not to travel too far for their food, so a landscape made up of ‘corridors’ and ‘stepping stones’ of feeding stations can work well for them. That’s where a network of gardens can have a huge impact.

Plant now, enjoy later
There are many things you can have in your garden to support pollinators and we’ve got some suggestions and tips below. The more different kinds of flowers, trees and shrubs you put into your garden, the more different types of pollinators you’re likely to support. If you can, try to include a source of water e.g. bird bath, and some wilder bits of vegetation, log/wood piles and bare ground to allow different pollinators to nest, shelter or simply soak up the sun.

The first queen bumblebees and early butterflies are likely to emerge around March or April. Plants, trees and shrubs that you could have ‘lined-up’ for them to enjoy are lungwort, crocus, rosemary, rowan, apple and pear trees, hawthorn, and blackcurrant. These all bloom early and therefore provide a valuable food source for hungry emerging insects, particularly bumblebees.


Moving on into summer and of course the options are much wider – and planning what to plant now will ensure you provide really good food sources. Thyme, lavender, cosmos, alium, and sunflower are among those you should consider. The list of options to consider is much greater than just these however, and there are many resources across the internet which provide further pointers, and we have provided a handy table towards the end of this blog.


It’s important not to forget autumn when the last remaining pollinators are still flying about. Autumn flowering plants include honeysuckle, yarrow, sage and ivy, and having these in your garden will ensure you provide really useful help during these later months.


The role of urban areas in providing valuable resources for pollinators and other wildlife is clear. Since the 1930s, Britain has lost an estimated 97% of our wildflower meadows. This throws the efforts we make in our parks, gardens and allotments into sharp focus.

If you grow pollinator-friendly plants throughout the year our pollinating insects will be mighty glad of your efforts.

Happy planting!

Your at-a-glance plant guide..
The following suggestions are not exhaustive; there are indeed many other flowers we could have added to this list.

Wherever possible, we encourage planting of native species. Although some non-natives can be very good for pollinators, planting native species contribute to the creation of a natural system which is what we should be aiming for. 


The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website has a very good page on gardening to help bees. Why not take their garden test to see how bee-friendly your garden is!

The Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) provides further sections on how to plant for pollinators. Search their garden plants or wildflowers lists or look for the bee symbol when searching their database.

Visit Friends of the Earth plant list for bee friendly plants in every season