Natural England - Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction

Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction

1 May 2012

After months of careful planning and negotiations, a team of experts led by Dr Nikki Gammans have embarked on a special mission to bring short-haired bumblebee queens back to the UK from the south of Sweden.

Short-haired bumblebee (c) Nikki Gammans

Short-haired bumblebee © Nikki Gammans

After a period of quarantine, It is hoped the bees can then be released on the RSPB Dungeness reserve in May 2012 and eventually colonise the surrounding area - see press release.

This is an exciting opportunity and a Natural England Species Recovery project to bring a lost species, extinct in England back to our countryside . The project steering group, which includes Natural England, have worked very closely with authorities in Sweden over the last two years, to set the project up. On behalf of Dr Gammans and the steering group, we are extremely grateful to our Swedish colleagues for their help and support.

A trial was carried out in May 2011 to ensure that the Swedish population was healthy enough to donate between 30-100 bees. The project team was then given permission to collect a limited number of short haired bumblebees in May 2012 by the Swedish Board of Agriculture (Jordbruksverket).

How did it become extinct in the UK and when?

The Short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, was last seen at Dungeness in Kent in 1988 and was officially declared extinct in 2000 after many repeated searches. We believe this bee species along with the other threatened bumblebee species have suffered due to the loss of flower-rich habitats such as meadows.

Over the last 60 years, the UK has lost over 97% of its wild flower meadows due to intensifying agricultural practices. It is also likely that the removal of hedgerows from the UK may have reduced the available nesting and hibernation sites for short-haired bumblebees.

Are the bees found in any other country?

Yes - many European countries are also experiencing a decline in short-haired bumble bee numbers due to shortage of suitable habitat. It is Red Listed in most countries of north-west Europe with the exception of Sweden which supports the most robust populations.

Why was Sweden chosen?

The Swedish Threatened Species Unit advised that the status of the short-haired bumblebee in Sweden has improved and is no longer Red-listed. Southern Sweden was chosen as the source of the bees, following advice from local bee recorders that the population in southern Sweden was strong, and given the similarity in climate between southern Sweden and the UK.

With permission from the Swedish Board of Agriculture (Jordbruksverket), an initial visit to Sweden was made in May 2011 to find suitable locations to collect queen bees. Working with the local bumblebee recorder, suitable areas of habitat were visited and bees collected for disease screening.

What impact will be there on the host population in Sweden?

An initial trial expedition to Sweden took place in May 2011 to collect queens to establish the abundance of short-haired bumblebees. The population of bees was found to be locally abundant and it was deemed that taking between 30-100 individuals annually over the proposed next four years will not harm the donor population.

Where will the bees be collected?

The bees will be collected from two transects approximately 40 kilometres in length and a distance of 40 kilometres miles apart. Queens will be collected with low intensity from along this 80 kilometre transect, meaning that there will be a minimal impact on the population at any one locality. Areas of Skane which do not fall on these linear transects will not be visited and samples will not be collected.

What about the difference in climate?

The bumblebees will be collected from an area in the south of Sweden that has a broadly similar climate to southern UK.

How many bees will you bring back? Will it be all at once or in stages?

Dr Gammans has a license to bring back up to 100 queens, but hopefully there will be multiple releases over the next few years. May is when the short-haired bumblebee normally emerges from hibernation.

What about the risks of introducing diseases and parasites?

As part of the reintroduction programme we have completed a disease risk assessment and have identified a number of possible hazards. The bumblebees will be kept in quarantine to screen for possible diseases and parasites before they are released.

The will be also checked for mites and American foulbrood disease by a registered vet and honeybee inspector in Sweden prior to a heath certificate being signed, which allows their transportation to the UK.

We are working with the Zoological Society of London and Royal Holloway University of London to implement a disease risk management plan and post release health screening. This will allow us to meet IUCN guidelines on reintroductions and our release license requirements. Natural England has undertaken a full Disease Risk Assessment and Disease Management Plan in order to meet IUCN guidelinesexternal link on species reintroductions. This involves a protocol to be followed for reducing the risk of disease transmission.

FERA has approved the import of the bees into the UK and the Natural England licensing unit has granted a license to release them.

How long will the bees be kept in quarantine?

The bees are to be held in quarantine for up to two weeks to ensure that all test for known diseases and parasites have been carried out.

Do you have the support of farmers?

Yes. The project team is working very closely with farmers on the Romney Marsh area of Kent. To date, farmers have supported and backed our project and we are very pleased with the fantastic support they have given us.

Environmental Stewardship is helping farmers to provide the habitat features and landscape diversity that benefits the short-haired bumblebee. Already some 500ha of clover-rich swards have been sown and more will be sown this year.

What benefits does this project bring to farmers?

Bumblebees pollinate many important agricultural crops and are critical to our farming economy. More bumblebees = better crop pollination - there is evidence that the shortage of pollinators is reducing crop yields.

Has other wildlife benefited from the habitat creation?

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.

When and where will we be able to see the bees?

If the current re-establishment project is successful in future years, it will be possible to see this bumblebee at Dungeness and nearby areas in Kent. May and June will be the best times to see them foraging on red clover flowers.

The bees from New Zealand did not survive hibernation – is there a similar risk here?

Bees were originally taken from the UK to New Zealand by nineteenth century emigrants and it was hoped that some of their ancestors could be returned to the UK. The change from south to northern hemisphere though meant the New Zealand bees sadly did not survive hibernation. Studies of their genetics also found significant inbreeding and the project to bring the bees back from New Zealand had to be abandoned. All reintroductions are complicated and carry a risk but following months of planning, with bee experts at home and in Sweden, we are very confident that the Swedish project will be a success.


RSPBexternal link

Bumblebee Conservation Trustexternal link

Hymettusexternal link