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Warm spring ideal for release of Kent's famous short-haired bumblebees

Last modified: 19 May 2014

Queen short-haired bumblebee on clover

Image: Nikki Gammans

Conditions are ideal for Britain’s rarest bumblebee, as the latest batch of queens is set to be released into their new home in Kent.

The short-haired bumblebee has become a conservation celebrity since the reintroduction project was launched two years ago with the local community rallying to the cause, thousands of followers on social media, appearances on TV and a film made about its journey.

Earlier this month a team of scientists and volunteers travelled to Sweden to collect queen bumblebees and brought them back to Royal Holloway University of London to be screened for disease. A warm spring and a bumper crop of the bee’s preferred early foraging plant, white dead nettle, meant the team were able to collect all the queens in just two and a half days. Today (May 19th) the queens will be introduced to the RSPB Dungeness reserve in Kent.

Although worker short-haired bumblebees were spotted at the site following last year’s release, no queens have yet been recorded. However, the team behind the project hope this year they will start to see signs of a self-sustaining population.

Dr Nikki Gammans, project officer, said: “The signs are good - there are a lot of wild flowers coming into bloom thanks to the work of the local farming community and gardeners. We have already spotted other very rare species in the area including the ruderal bumblebee and the red-shanked carder bee.

“With short-haired bumblebee workers being spotted last year and a new batch ready to go out, there are high hopes for the future of the species. We managed to collect all the queens in just two and a half days in Sweden and the warm spring has brought the release date forward by two weeks.

“A lot of people are following the fortunes of the bumblebees now both in Kent and further afield in the UK and in Sweden, and it’s fantastic talking to so many people who care so much about our threatened bumblebees.

“One thing I always tell people is that there is something everyone can do to help bees bounce back in the UK. Several bee species are in real trouble and have been in decline for many years, but if we all make an effort to plant the right native nectar-rich plants in our gardens then we can make a big difference. Lavender is my favourite – it looks and smells beautiful and bumblebees just love it.”

The short-haired bumblebee – known to scientists as Bombus subterraneus and in Sweden as the vallhumlor bee – went extinct in the UK in 1988. It was last recorded at Lydd in Kent, close to Dungeness.

After working with local farmers to create the ideal wildflower habitat for bumblebees in the area around Dungeness, Natural England, RSPB, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus, kick started the project, with an initial pilot reintroduction two years ago.

There are 24 other species of bumblebee in the UK – including seven which are commonly seen in most areas and seven threatened species which are priorities for conservation action. Two species have gone extinct, Cullem’s bumblebee which disappeared more than 70 years ago and the short-haired bumblebee.

How you can help

Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.

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