Natural England - Extinct short-haired bumblebee returns to Britain after 24 year absence

Extinct short-haired bumblebee returns to Britain after 24 year absence

28 May 2012

Flowering fields in Kent will today welcome home Bombus subterraneus – otherwise known as the short-haired bumblebee - nearly a quarter of a century after the bee was last seen in Britain.

After three years of preparing for this reintroduction, backed by Natural England, the RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus, queen bees will be released at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve this morning.  The partnership will closely monitor how the bees take to their new surroundings and over the summer months, surveys will be carried out to determine bee numbers and to see if they are exploring beyond the release site.

The short-haired bumblebee is one of 27 bumblebee species native to the UK. It was formerly widespread in south-eastern England and could be found as far as Yorkshire and Cornwall. Numbers fell during the twentieth century and by the 1980s it was restricted to Dungeness and the Romney Marshes in Kent. It was last seen in Britain in 1988 and declared extinct in 2000.

The short-haired bumblebee project depends on the creation of healthy bumblebee habitat by local farmers. Using Environmental Stewardship funding, farmers in Dungeness have been preparing for the bees’ homecoming by growing flower-rich borders and meadows essential for a range of nectar feeding insects from bumblebees to butterflies.

The short-haired bumblebees being released today have been brought over with great care from Sweden by project leader Dr Nikki Gammans and her team. With close cooperation from bee experts and the Skåne County Administrative Board in Sweden, queen bees were collected from meadows in Sweden earlier this month, and then quarantined at Royal Holloway, University of London for two weeks prior to today’s release. During quarantine, the bees were screened for parasites to make sure that only healthy bees and no foreign parasites would be re-introduced to the UK.

Poul Christensen, Chair of Natural England commented: “The return of one of Britain’s lost species is a cause for celebration. This is a great example of the type of dedicated partnership between farmers, scientists and conservation organisations that can make a real difference for wildlife in this country.”  

Environment Minister, Richard Benyon said: “The drone of the bee is one of the sounds of summer and bringing back this species of bumblebee after it’s been absent from the UK for 12 years is wonderful news.  I hope it will thrive and in time, spread to new areas.”

RSPB Conservation director Martin Harper said: “Dungeness is a spectacular place and a haven for a wide range of wildlife. We have put in a lot of work here recreating flower meadows which are vital if we are going to bring bumblebees back to our countryside.

“This area was the last place the short-haired bumblebee was recorded before it disappeared 24 years ago so it is very exciting to see it finally coming home.  But this is just the start – we will all be working hard to make sure this, and other threatened bumblebee species, expand their ranges and recolonise south eastern England.

Dr Ben Darvill, CEO for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust said; "Bumblebees are now scarce in many farmland areas due to intensive agriculture. The work in the South East of England, in preparation for this reintroduction, shows what is possible when bee-friendly practises are used. Farmers here are running successful businesses and producing food, whilst supporting healthy pollinator populations. Bumblebees are farmers' friends, so it makes sense to support them. We hope the successes in the South East will encourage others to help bumblebees too."

Paul Lee from Hymettus said; “We are delighted with the way the project has moved forward. The benefits can already be seen in the return of several threatened species of bumblebee to the area and this successful reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee would be helping restore yet another link in the ecological network, and provide one of the iconic sights and sounds of the British countryside.”

More information

  • Bees in the UK continue to suffer declines due to a loss of habitat - Britain has lost 97% of flowering meadows in the last 60 years.  This concerns conservationists and scientists because bees are a vital pollinator of our food crops with an estimated worth of £510 million a year.   Defra’s National Ecosystem Assessment 2011 reportexternal link estimates that pollinating insects are worth £430 million a year – the cost to pollinate our food crops each year if they disappeared altogether. A recent Friends of the Earth reportexternal link updated the cost to £510 million.

  • The project is working with farmers, conservation groups, small holders and other land owners in the area to create flower-rich habitat. To date the project has had enormous success with bumblebee habitat creation. More than 650 hectares of land is now managed, mostly under Environmental Stewardship Scheme, to provide ideal conditions for bumblebees. Environmental Stewardship is administered by Natural England on behalf of Defra and funds farmers and land managers throughout England to deliver effective environmental management on their land.

  • Farmers in the area are a vital part of the project and have put in place measures including pollen and nectar rich flower margins and rotational grazing. They have helped create corridors of suitable habitat linking farmland and nature reserves in the area, allowing bees to spread out. By creating corridors of flower-rich habitat across Romney Marsh area, we have seen an increase and spread in the numbers of bumblebee species in Kent. Five threatened species, which include England’s rarest bumblebee the shrill carder bee, have all increased their geographic range in this area after decades of decline.

Larry Cooke, arable and sheep farmer, Romney Marsh :
We need bees and other insects for food production, so it’s vital that we look after them and provide habitats where they can thrive.  With the support of Environmental Stewardship, we’ve been growing vetches and red clover in two or three flowering phases a year, which supports bees and other insects by providing them with a long season helps them work with us alongside main agricultural production.  This has not only benefited the insects but other wildlife like brown hare and farmland birds.  I know we are giving this new bee population the best possible start here and I look forward to seeing them on the farm. 

Simon Ashworth, arable pastoral farmer Romney Marsh:
“My brother and I took over my father’s farm in the 1950’s and we haven’t changed the way it runs! We farm beef, sheep, potatoes and wheat and all the fields are in ELS and old stewardship schemes. Wild flower borders around our fields are planted with pollen and nectar mixes which encourage the foraging of bumblebees.”

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