To "Bee" or Not to "Bee?" The Surprising Bumblebee Goby

One of the fun things about the aquarium hobby is that we always have the opportunity to find out new things about existing ideas, practices, and fishes. There are certain fishes which we have almost taken for granted in the hobby, yet, which there still seems to be a lot of conflicting information about circulating online and elsewhere.

I sometimes wonder if this is because there is that whole "regurgitation" thing going on- a lot of well-intentioned "information aggregating" about an aquarium topic from individuals with little to no personal experience with an idea, technique, piece of equipment, plant, coral, or fish.

Perhaps this has lead to us becoming weirdly complacent in our understanding of such things? As hard as it is to believe, there are some very common (to the hobby) fishes which fall into this grey area.

My vote for the cutest freshwater fish is definitely the lovable "Bumblebee Goby", Brachygobius doriae. because, well- it's really small ( like maybe 1.5"/ 38mm max), and hops around like its namesake.  And it has this little face that's...well, it's cute. And, did I mention? It's small. It's even placed in a small genus, with only nine, occasionally-confused members.

Actually, not occasionally confused- pretty much always confused! 

And, the real irony is that the fish which we in the hobby refer to as the "Bumblebee Goby" is Brachygobius doriae; however, "the books" always seem to illustrate and talk about the similar, but exceedingly rare Brachygobius (Hypogymnogobius) xanthozonus. It's super easy to be totally confused about these fish. The collective "Bumblebee Goby" moniker that we as a hobby and industry attach to all of these little bastards doesn't help at all, either!

Don't feel bad. It's not just us hobbyists who are making a confused mess of this stuff. Goby taxonomy is apparently, "...a Category 5 Shit-storm!" as one taxonomy student I reached out to for this piece relayed to me! Love the honesty of college kids! 

Now, one of the things I love about this fish is that it's one that we have  a completely preconceived notion about, and the "Bumblebee Goby",  is like the poster child for "little brackish aquariums."

(The star of our blog...taken by our good friend, Ted Judy! Visit his site- for all sorts of cool stuff!)

And, yeah, it IS found in brackish environments in places like coastal southeast Asia, from the Mae Khlong in Thailand to the Mekong basin (Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam), Malaysia (Peninsular and Sarawak areas), Singapore, Indonesia (Kalimantan, Borneo) and Brunei. 

There is one species, Brachygobius xanthomelas, which is, from every source I can access, a true freshwater "specialist"- not believed to inhabit brackish water habitats.

And then there is the confusing and similar B. sabanus, which really looks like B. doriae, and is found in both brackish and freshwater habitats, and...Yeah. I actually think I've kept that species before, having been simply and exasperatingly called "Bumblebee Goby" at the retailer.

According to one source, the two species are extremely similar in appearance and easily confused, with the primary visual difference (to us, not ichthyologists doing scale counts) is that in B. doriae, the majority of the first dorsal fin, and about 2/3 of of the pectoral fin are black. In B. sabanus, the last ray or two of the first dorsal fin are clear, and a small percentage of the pectoral fin is black. 

Yeah, try to determine THAT on a 1-inch fish in an established aquarium! I kind of understand why we use the common name to describe all of these little fishes now!

Oh, and supposedly B. sabanus is much smaller than B. doriae... Okay, but seriously....They're both tiny-ass fish! 


I'm pretty sure that the fish in my brackish tank is B.sabanus, but I"m not 100% certain...Not that I'm easily confused or anything like that...😆


The real cool thing about our little friends, Brachygobius doriae and Brachygobius sabanus (or whatever the hell they are)is that they may be found in not only "regular" freshwater habitats- but soft, acidic those tannin-stained peat swamps that we've talked about before!

Now, in these peat swamps, they surprisingly tend to be found in waters that are more mildly acidic (like 6.8 and up), but nonetheless, this is an extraordinary range for a fish that has been long ago "typecast" by the aquarium trade as a primarily brackish water fish, wouldn't you say?

Now, most aquarium-available populations of these fish tend to come from pure freshwater, or if we're lucky, brackish. The problem is that we as hobbyists are at the mercy of our suppliers to advise us where they came from. Once you identify what species you actually have, if that's your thing- careful acclimation to your water conditions- whatever those might be- is necessary. Like a lot of small gobies, they tend to not tolerate wildly fluctuating environmental conditions well.

I've kept them in brackish (SG 1.003-1.010) water with a little "tint" and perhaps a slight turbidity to it for many years with great success (and I even had two instances of them laying eggs!). Our concept of the "botanical-style brackish" aquarium is pretty much a perfect fit for these little guys, IMHO...assuming you carefully acclimate them to your conditions. 

And being a little fish that tends to hop around on the substrate, it's not a bad idea to learn more about the substrate in the localities where it's found, right? I did a little digging (LOL) in the available scientific information on these fishes and their common habitats, and found that the locations in which they are found tend to have fairly specific types of materials in the substrate. 

The substrate itself is typically muddy, sandy, silty and interspersed with leaves, driftwood, and yeah, mangrove roots in the brackish areas. Did you see the "leaves" part? Yeah...kinda what I was thinking. I love the mud part- a theme that we've been talking about aover and over here at Tannin, haven't we?

I've always kept these little guys in "community" settings- that is- a community of their own species. Like, a group of 10-20 specimens.  I suppose the this "big community" approach is a bit "unconventional" in aquarium hobby practice, but if you want to see their most natural behaviors, this is the best way, IMHO. They remind me very much of marine Jawfishes, in which there are definite social hierarchies and territorial boundaries and such.  

You don't need a huge aquarium to keep them, but wouldn't it be cool to keep a bunch of these tiny guys in say, a 40-50 gallon tank? Yeah...Of course it is! Especially if it's set up correctly!  That's a proportionately huge tank for some tiny little fishes, but trust me- it's the ultimate "stage" for these guys!


Of course, careful acclimation and quarantine of newly-received Bumblebee Gobies is really important, because they're little fishes, and are often half-starved upon arrival at the LFS. They do need ample time and attention in order to acclimate to captivity healthily.

And the way you set up the tank; the way it's "scaped", is so important to facilitating their health, happiness, and interesting behaviors! This is where not just relying on aquarium references is important. Look on sites like, and see the "occurrences" of the fish, and research these collection sites...You'll find out a lot about these locales if you "deep dive", and you can find out lots of interesting details about the ecologies of the areas in which they are found in Nature.

The importance of setting up an aquarium with a variety of "micro-niches" (i.e.; rocky areas, empty shells, branches, palm fronds, leaf and botanical accumulations, mangrove roots, etc.) cannot be overstated. Not only does it look cool aesthetically (duh..), it facilitates social behaviors, provides potential food sources, and as well.

Having decomposing leaf litter and sedimented substrates provides the opportunity for these little guys to forage among- important, because it is sometimes a bit of a challenge to get them to feed on prepared foods. I've found, however, that they will typically acclimate to frozen and live brine shrimp, and even Daphnia, over time. The botanical-style aquarium gives you that additional "edge", providing supplemental food sources, as we've discussed many, many times here.

As I have mentioned already, it's great to keep these guys in a group- the larger the better, IMHO! This is why a decent-sized aquarium makes the most sense to me! 

Now, one of the things we've learned over the decades is that just because you're small doesn't mean you can't be a bit of a jerk- and these guys are no exception! You'll occasionally get a dominant male that is just such a...well-asshole- that he pretty much can be the "top dog" of his domain of tiny friends, making life sometimes miserable for them.

You need to watch this type of behavior and occasionally intervene to make sure it doesn't get out of hand (and it can, believe it or not...seeing two 3/4" fishes going at it is only partially funny when one of them gets the shit kicked out of him).  Again, that's the value, IMHO, of using a much larger aquarium than you'd think that you need for these guys.

(Image by Dirk Golinski, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Perhaps my favorite aspect of these fishes is that many of them ARE truly brackish-water fishes, or at least, brackish-water "friendly", and are truly worthy of their own tank. A group of these small, endearing fishes can be as exciting as any of the larger, flashier fishes which we associated with brackish tanks.

And since we have a better way to do brackish, IMHO, we can leverage this ability with better understanding of the habitats from which these guys come from in Nature, and create truly amazing displays for them!

The frequent frustration many hobbyists encounter when they embark on a brackish water aquarium adventure is a distinct lack of readily-available information on the fishes and and their habitats.  And of course, there is a significant challenge to source some of the fishes from these unique habitats...and, indeed, it's often a matter of discerning which fishes indeed come from brackish water habitats!

As we start looking closer and closer at brackish aquariums, we'll start looking more and more closely at the fishes that we could use in our brackish aquariums. This piece was not intended to be a landmark, group-breaking expose' on a pretty well-known fish...

However, I wanted to get you thinking about some of the fishes that you've already heard of, perhaps even taken for granted, while looking at them in the context of the type of environments we're talking about with our botanical-style brackish work.  

Of course, we look at some of the common (and rare) fishes that are perfect for what we're doing. The "Bumblebee Goby" (whatever species you might encounter), is one of our enduring, yet surprising faves, for a lot of reasons. 

Should you keep this fish? Well, sure, if you're up to the idea of really setting up the correct conditions for the species that you have. They're simply not a super-easy fish that you can just pop into any old tank...They're not difficult, either, but you need to understand your fish and the habitat which they came from in order to really be successful with them, IMHO.

We're thinking of lots of cool ideas to keep these fishes healthy and happy for a long time...and no doubt, you have many of your own! Be sure to share, because we love to hear what you do, too!

Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay "slightly salty..."

And Stay Wet


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

September 23, 2021

In my experience, yes. Some populations are from purely fresh water, so brackish would be necessary- potentially even stressful, I suppose, although I personally have never had issues acclimating specimens from unknown water types to brackish if done slowly. In my 40 gallon mangrove tank, I kept 18 of them without any issues, and even had a couple of spawning events! They’re tiny, and have an interesting social structure, so personally, I’d add a few and go for the fun!



September 19, 2021

So what you’re saying with the freshwater/brackish debate, is that either is fine? As long as they are slowly acclimated?
Also, I have to say that I am tempted to set up a 45 gallon species only tank. What would you say would be a good number of gobies to keep in a tank of that size?
Thanks :)

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