Icelandic Bees

Iceland is more than spectacular volcanoes, ground quakes and rupturing continents. It has bees, too. Some say that the first founder bumble bee blew in with the wind. Others think that Iceland’s first bumble bee hitched a ride aboard a Viking ship, hidden among hay, ponies, and sheep on the 1,000-kilometre journey from the north of the British Isles. Bee DNA shows that the first bumble bee, Bombus jonellus, likely arrived on two distinct occasions, so both theories may be right. More recently, between 1959 and 2010, four other bumble bee species were found in Iceland.  All these species are well-represented throughout northern Europe and likely arrived as stowaways.

Bombus jonellus, Iceland’s first bee
Photo by Ivar Leidus

I have some problems identifying things. I am badly colour-blind. Also I often mistake my wife for a hat, so Dr. Anselm Kratochwil of the University of Osnabrück has kindly identified the species for me. The following photographs were taken in Reykjavik by family members and me.

This is my favourite photo. It was taken on a cool rainy summer morning in the hilltop gardens at Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímur’s Church). The bees had been foraging the night before and camped out overnight. In the morning, they began twitching their muscles to warm up as soon as the rain ended and the sun shone. On this Centaurea cyanus (bachelor’s button) are Bombus hypnorum, left, with brown thorax hair and black abdomen, and on the right, Bombus lucorum, the White-tailed bumble bee.  These are different bee species, of course, so their placid sharing of a bed was quite surprising.

  Here’s another Bombus lucorum, foraging on Centaurea cyanus:

Yet another B. lucorum. It’s important, of course, to not frighten the bee.

The next bee, Bombus hypnorum, is the newest accidental arrival in Iceland. Once restricted to continental Europe, in the past 20 years it has colonized Britain and Iceland. Typically, Bombus hypnorum has a dark ginger thorax (mid-section) but this one has an unusual black thorax. She is visiting flowers of Syringa vulgaris (lilac).

By now,  Bombus lucorum’s thorax of light-yellow and black bands of hair and its abdomen of light-yellow and black bands followed by a white tail is familiar to you. The plant species is Philadelphus coronarius, which we call mock orange.

Thanks again to my sister, Jane, who took the best of these photos and to Anselm Kratochwil for all the identifications. I regret that I didn’t see honey bees in Iceland (another non-native insect on the island), but perhaps next time.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in History, Native Bees, Travels and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Icelandic Bees

  1. Pingback: Icelandic Bees - One-Bee-Store

  2. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating, I had no idea that there were bumble bees in Iceland.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous says:

    The dark one with white tail is probably Bombus soroeensis:


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, I appreciate the feedback. It does look like B. soroeensis, but that species has never been spotted in Iceland.
      You might like to look at this paper, Bumblebee fauna of Iceland, which “…gives new records for all bumble bee species living in Iceland: B. hortorum, B. hypnorum, B. jonellus, B. lucorum, B. pascuorum, B. pratorum and B. terrestris.”


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