My article about the re-introduction of the short-haired bumblebee to Britain is published in the September 2016 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, with images from award-winning photographer Nick Upton.
The last known sighting of Bombus subterraneus was in Dungeness in 1988. It was declared nationally extinct in 2000. The reintroduction of this lost insect is not just about bringing a native bumblebee back to Britain, it’s also a bold attempt to restore an entire ecosystem.
It was fascinating to research and write this piece, and it’s a joy to see it in print. I absolutely love the first spread – just look at all that glorious yellow. The magazine is for sale online and in all good newsagents now.
Dungeness isn’t classically beautiful. Flat and, in places, shingly, it’s as famous for its nuclear power stations as it is for its nature reserve. But it is picturesque in its own wind-blown way, and important too – for birds, of course, but also for bees. In fact this whole coastal area is an insect hotspot. Rarities are recorded here, but so sadly are losses.
Urbanisation and agricultural intensification have seen 97 per cent of Britain’s wildflower meadows lost, threatening the future of farmland wildlife. The short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – was last recorded in Dungeness in 1988, and officially declared nationally extinct in 2000. Starting a new millennium with an extinction was a wake up call – something needed to be done.
Dungeness is now at the heart of an ambitious project to bring the short-haired bumblebee back to Britain. Reintroductions are fashionable right now, and it would be a cold heart that couldn’t get a little excited about the return of charismatic creatures like the beaver. But can we get enthused about a lost insect, one many of us didn’t even miss? The answer is yes, we absolutely can.
Returning a native
In collaboration with Hymettus, Natural England and RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is attempting to reestablish the short-haired bumblebee on our south-eastern shores. There have been five releases since 2012, with 203 queens set free so far.
The queens are collected from Sweden, where short-haired bumblebees are common. A tiny proportion of the population is caught – just 0.01 per cent – and then quarantined at Royal Holloway University. Once the queens are confirmed disease free, they are released and monitored throughout the summer by a team of eagle-eyed volunteers.
Worker bees have been seen buzzing about East Sussex and Kent, which means the queens are successfully nesting. The ultimate aim is to establish a self-sustaining, genetically diverse population. Data is still being gathered and analysed, but, so far, it seems to be working.
For Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of the bestselling A Sting in the Tale, losing the short-haired bumblebee was a tragedy of our own making, and bringing it back is about hope. ‘It will show that we can look after our natural heritage,’ he says. ‘Perhaps future generations will be able to enjoy a healthy British countryside, rich in wildlife of all shapes and sizes.’
Engineering an ecosystem
But are attention-grabbing reintroductions really what our wildlife needs? ‘It’s always controversial to bring something back, you have to be confident it will work,’ admits Richard Comont, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s science manager. ‘A few eyebrows raise when you do something innovative, but in general people are supportive.’
The short-haired bumblebee is the tiny figurehead of a project that actually has much wider, landscape-scale ambitions. Nikki Gammans, who is managing the reintroduction, is clear – bringing back this bumblebee is essential, and it’s about so much more than a single species: ‘It’s about restoring a whole ecosystem that has been lost,’ she says.
Before the queens could be released, the team first had to ensure there would be enough food available throughout the summer foraging season. Local farmers were crucial to this – encouraging them to return to a more wildlife-friendly way of working was the only way to create the expansive sweep of nectar-rich land the bees need.
‘There’s no point in having a little bit here and a little bit there,’ explains Nikki. ‘ You need to have connectivity, so species can move and colonise new areas. We’re using GIS to plot all of the habitat, mapping the flower species, how long they flower for, the management technique in use. We can then see the gaps, and see who we need to work with next.’
It’s been relatively easy to convince farmers to help – crops like broad beans and peas need long-tongued species like the short-haired bumblebee to fertilise them. Together with other pollinators, bees contribute hundreds of millions to the UK economy every year. By working with 72 farmers and 20 landowners,1,200 hectares of land have been improved for bumblebees since 2009, with knock-on benefits for a host of other insects, mammals and birds.
Signs of success
Nikki invites me to walk with her through a glorious hay meadow in Dungeness. Her eyes are attuned to the micro-life at work in the field, and she’s constantly spotting different bumblebee species zipping low among the knotty vetches, or busy feeding on the pom-pom-like flowers of red clover. A kestrel glides overhead, skylarks sing, electric blue dragonflies cut a dash around a reedy pond.
‘We’ve done five years of reintroductions, so this is an important year for us,’ Nikki explains. ‘This is when we review the population of subterraneus to establish what is happening, and the genetic diversity of the workers we’re seeing. We’ll also be quantifying the amount of habitat and the amount of bumblebees over it.’
What if it isn’t working, if the reintroduced bees aren’t establishing? Nikki insists that, although Bombus subterraneus is important, the success of the project doesn’t hinge solely on it. Increasing floral diversity and extending the length of the forage season is having a positive impact, and other rare species are expanding into and colonising newly restored habitat. ‘This year we found ruderal bumblebee in an area it hasn’t been found in for 25 years,’ says Nikki. ‘This keeps us going, gives us momentum.’
The plants in the Dungeness hayfield are knee high and the tenant farmer will soon cut them back, then bundle up the hay to sell as fodder. Within three weeks, the dead-headed wildflowers will be back in bloom and busy with insects. Later, cattle and sheep will be brought in to graze, keeping the grasses under control and disturbing the ground, encouraging more wildflowers to grow. It’s a nature-rich landscape that’s completely human made. Without any large herbivores roaming wild, it is machinery and livestock that enables the flowers, and all the creatures they support, to thrive.
Farming for the future
This field is just one example of many. Across Kent and East Sussex, a network of bee-friendly fields, margins and gardens are being created and maintained. Nikki is also trying to convince local councils to do more – by cutting roadside verges less frequently, and insisting that municipal planting is bee friendly, they could make a big difference.
But it’s agriculture that’s having the fastest, most exciting results. I ask Nikki about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. She groans. The EU has backed many agri-environment schemes, and she’s concerned what the future will hold. ‘We must make farming sustainable, and agri-environment schemes are the main way we can do that,’ argues Nikki. ‘If they went completely it could be a disaster. We really must keep the pressure on our governments and say let’s have farming sustainable.’
For now, her focus is on engaging more farmers, and collecting the data that illustrates the impact the reintroduction is having. ‘The project is very much underpinned by science, which influences how it moves forward’, says Nikki. ‘We’re collecting results that show if you create the habitat, the bees do respond, they do come.’
1984 – the nationally extinct large blue butterfly is reintroduced to south-west England. It offers a strong template for future projects to follow, and shows what large-scale collaboration between scientists, conservationists and volunteers can achieve.
1988 – the last known sighting of a short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – in the UK. It is recorded at Dungeness in Kent.
2000 – the short-haired bumblebee is officially declared extinct in Britain. Over the previous half century, the UK lost almost all its wildflower meadows, with disastrous consequences for bees and other farmland wildlife.
2006 – responding to a dramatic population crash – two species declared nationally extinct and several others in serious decline – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is founded. Their aim is to support the conservation of all bumblebees, rare or abundant.
2009 – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s project to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee begins, focusing first on preparing the wider environment for the release. Local farmers and landowners are key to this.
2012 – short-haired bumblebee queens that have already mated are collected from Sweden, then released in Kent and East Sussex, after first being quarantined and screened for disease. Volunteers monitor their success in the newly restored wildflower habitat.
2016 – the fifth batch of queens is released, bringing the total set free to over 200. Thanks to local landowners and farmers, more than 1,000 hectares of habitat have now been restored. Other rare bumblebee species are regularly recorded by volunteers monitoring the project’s impact.
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