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.
Find out more
Apparently half a million bees buzz around the area that was fairly recently rebranded as ‘midtown’ – that is Bloomsbury, Holborn and Saint Giles. With such facts in mind, a competition encouraging architects and designers to provide wildlife with suitable accommodation was launched by InMidtown and the Architecture Foundation.
The wild work of three finalists is now on display at Central Saint Giles (that eye-watering and half empty new development near Saint Giles’ Church), and you can vote for the winner. The chosen design will become part of the area’s street furniture.
First up is the Bee Lift, designed by Archmongers and the Buchanan Partnership. It’s a huge construction, which holds a bee hive aloft but allows it to be swung gently down to ground level via a pivoted steel arm and several pulleys.
Bees like to be elevated and many hives are hidden away on central London’s rooftops. The designers wanted to provide bees with the height they love but, at the same time, provide humans with a spectacle and reveal the honey making process to passersby. It’s a bold, intriguing and ultimately very bulky concept.
Next is a collection by 51% Studios that includes a flat pack bee hive, bat and bird box, planter and bug hotel all made from a fascinating material called Barsmark PT-200. It’s waste insulation destined for landfill that’s been compressed into a timber-like material. It’s lightweight, waterproof and even weathers well, turning a golden brown colour in the elements.
Simple and easy to install, we particularly liked the fact this collection had a system for collecting rain water for birds and bees to drink, and also included a rubble tray that the water dripped onto to create tiny pools. Gravelly, brownfield habitat is really important to a host of creatures in London, including rare insects.
Last there is a bee hive, bat box and planter/seat by Jon Ackers Coyle with Growth Industry Ltd. The box looks like a hanging bat and is made from steel with a roughened timber inner chamber. The designers wanted to draw attention to London’s bat life with the playful design – often bat boxes aren’t distinguishable from bird boxes and so go unnoticed. They also designed it to cleverly deflect bat poo from buildings.
The ‘metropollen’ planter and seat is inspired by the old Metropolitan drinking troughs found in Holborn, and acts as a feeding station for pollinators as well as a pretty place to rest weary feet. The bee hive is modelled on a traditional design but made contemporary with bright colours and modern materials, including a hinged coated steel roof.
If you’re passing by it’s worth taking a look at these manmade habitats. Hopefully they’ll help highlight that London is home to a wealth of creatures of the non-human kind, and that wildlife deserves to be considered in the design of city spaces.
When beekeepers took to the streets late last year, it was clear something was up. Pushed to act by the collapse of bee colonies around the world, UK bee experts demanded something be done. The government has now committed itself to funding more research into why bees are dying, appreciating that the situation is serious. Bees are not just nice wildlife to have around and providers of honey for our toast, they are crucial to agriculture. In a time of financial gloom, it’s important to note that bees are worth £165million to British farming, relied upon to pollinate at least a third of the food we eat.
The global picture
The global bee picture is grim. The British Beekeepers’ Association says the UK population dropped by 30% between 2007 and 2008. Studies suggest that in Italy populations are down 40% and in France 60%. The situation in the United States is even worse. Experts paint a picture that varies in its degree of seriousness, but some talk of population declines as high as 90%.
One of the main problems is that it is very hard to monitor what’s going on, and there isn’t a standard way of doing it across the world. Another problem is uncertainty over why bees are dying. The varroa mite and ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ have been blamed in the US. Experts suspect that a multitude of causes, including pesticides, diseases, parasites, stress, climate change and malnutrition, are contributing to the dramatic decline in world bee populations. Seasonal food shortages lead to malnutrition in the bees, making them more susceptible to diseases.
Why bees are important
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man” say Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum in their book ‘A World Without Bees’. Without bees there would be very few flowering crops. Our food plants depend upon them, especially tree fruit, soft fruit, salad crops, beans, apples and pears. On a small scale, every kitchen gardener and allotment holder needs bees in order to be productive.
All about bees
Only four types of UK bee actually make honey, but all species have a vital role to play in the ecosystem, pollinating our food crops and flowers. Some species form small colonies of a few hundred individuals, while honey bees form huge colonies of as many as 20,000, all the offspring of a single queen bee. The queen bee lays all the eggs, while worker bees collect the pollen and nectar that keeps the colony supplied.
There are also over 200 species of solitary bees and wasps in the UK. Solitary bees lay their eggs in cells hidden away in soft sand, soil or mortar, providing each egg with its own food supply. Perhaps the best known solitary bee is the leaf-cutter, which is responsible for cutting neat little semi-circles from the leaves and flowers of roses. They are very distinctive because of the bright orange pollen brush on their back legs.
Bee friendly planting
As a general guide, bees love daisy and bell shaped flowers. Always choose single flower varieties, double flowers don’t provide nectar for insects. The flowers on many fruit and vegetable crops are firm favourites of bees – beans, peas and fragrant herbs are loved, as are apples, currants and raspberries. If you have space in or around your vegetable plot, include flowers like azaleas, bluebells, forget-me-nots, foxgloves, lupins and primroses.
Companion planting, a traditional method of growing different plants together for mutual benefits like extra nutrients, protection from harsh weather and pest control, can make your plot particularly good for bees that will in turn benefit your produce. For example, nasturtiums grown among your brassicas will protect them from caterpillars – caterpillars will choose to eat nasturtium leaves rather than your cabbages, while their flowers will attract bees. Chives or sage amongst your carrots will ward off aphids and again their flowers will be great for bees, which in turn are then on hand to pollinate your other crops.
Bee friendly all year round
It’s not just in spring and summer that bees need your help. Be bee friendly all year round by providing safe homes for them to shelter and hibernate in over winter – it’s easy to knock up a bug box with some old lengths of bamboo or construct a solitary bee hotel by drilling holes into an old fence post. Also, think about growing winter and early flowering plants. Bees need food the moment they emerge from hibernation and will really appreciate these sources of nectar. Hebe and lungwort are good choices. Just like feeding the birds and putting up nest boxes seems like second nature for many gardeners, think about always providing food and shelter for the bees in your life too.
Best bee fruit and veg crops
Fossils show bees have been around for 150 million years
Humans have been beekeeping for at least 6000 years
Out of over 2000 bee species, only four produce honey
Bees can fly at speeds of up to 20mph
Bees don’t sleep
A worker bee will fly 500 miles in its lifetime
Bee pollination is worth over £165million to the UK
Concerned? Here’s some suggested further reading:
‘A World Without Bees’ by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum (ISBN-10 0852650922)
www.britishbee.org.uk – British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA)
http://beebase.csl.gov.uk – home of the National Bee Unit (NBU)
www.ibra.org.uk – home of the International Bee Research Association (IBRA)
www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening – free wildlife friendly gardening advice for everyone
This article appears in March 2009 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine www.kitchengarden.co.uk