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Country’s rarest bumblebees make a comeback

5 October 2010

Nik Shelton
Media Officer

The five most threatened bumblebees in England have made an unprecedented comeback this year thanks to environmental work by farmers.

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. They are now spreading across Kent and into East Sussex and the shrill carder have been seen in areas where it has not been recorded for 25 years.

Environment Minister Richard Benyon said: “Bumblebees play a vital role in helping to produce our food by pollinating crops. The decline in the number of bees is a concern for the long-term future of farming, so it is great to hear that the creation of these wildlife habitats has resulted in increased numbers of so many species of rare bumblebees. These results show the benefit of agri-environment schemes and the role farmers play in protecting and improving our wildlife.”

The increases are the result of environmental work by farmers and other land managers around the coastal wildlife haven of Dungeness and Romney Marsh. Around 50 farms in the area are part of a project launched in January last year being run by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Hymettus, Natural England and RSPB to restore the habitat of the short-haired bumblebee in advance of its re-introduction from New Zealand.

Dr Nikki Gammans, who leads the project, said: “We embarked on this project so that we could create the right conditions to bring the short-haired bumblebee back to the UK – but an added benefit is that it has provided a real boost to these five threatened species.

“We hoped that we would begin to see results like this for these species but we really didn’t expect to see it quite so quickly. It’s a great result, and one we’re very excited about. The south of Kent used to have more species of bumblebee than any other UK locality until the declines in the latter half of the 20th century.

“It is especially heartening news given the worrying overall declines in bee populations in the UK which could have a major impact on the pollination success of crops. Bumblebees pollinate red clover which is grazed by cattle, as well as tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, peas and a range of other fruit and vegetable crops.”

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 through environmental stewardship schemes. This has helped create corridors of suitable habitat linking farmland and nature reserves which have allowed the bees to spread out. More than 800 hectares of habitat has been created by farmers through the project.

Larry Cooke from Moneypenny farm, East Sussex, said: “Under my farms agri-environment schemes I have recreated habitat for bumblebees including pollen and nectar strips and red clover hay meadows.

“I am really pleased to hear that rare bumblebees are spreading across our countryside.  Bumblebees are vital to the pollination of many of our agricultural crops and for long term farming sustainability. Projects such as this one and Syngenta’s Operation Bumblebee project are working hard to restore habitat and it’s great to see the results” 

The next stage of the project is to return the short-haired bumblebee back to the UK. An expedition to New Zealand in mid November is preparing for the translocation of queens next year. The queens will be released at RSPB’s Dungeness reserve, close to the spot where they were last recorded in 1988.


1.      The five species which have increased their ranges in Kent and East Sussex this summer are: the large garden/ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus), the shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum), the red shanked carder bee (Bombus ruderarius), the moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum) and the brown banded carder bee (Bombus humilis). They make up five of the UK’s seven bumblebee species included in the Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan. The remaining two are the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), which is extinct in the UK, and the Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) which is found in northern Scotland.


2.       A colony of short-haired bumblebees (Bombus subterraneus) was originally taken from England to New Zealand in the first refrigerated steam ships by Victorian settlers to help pollinate their crops. But while the species held on in its new home, it suffered major declines in the UK due to habitat loss and was finally declared extinct ten years ago. A planned pilot release in the UK earlier this year was unsuccessful but next year will see the first part of a full scale reintroduction programme over the next four years intended to establish a stable, self sustaining population.