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Extinct bumblebee to return to Britain

Last modified: 26 April 2012

Queen short-haired bumblebee on clover

Image: Nikki Gammans

The return of a bumblebee species extinct in the UK for nearly a quarter of a century has moved a big step forward.

A team of conservationists is setting off to Sweden this weekend on a mission to collect up to 100 short-haired bumblebee queens before releasing them at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve in Kent later this Spring. 

The project to return the bumblebee Bombus subterraneus to the UK is a partnership between Natural England, the RSPB, Hymettus and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and forms part of the wider Natural England funded Species Recovery Programme.

Last recorded

The short-haired bumblebee was last recorded in the UK in 1988 near Dungeness. It suffered declines throughout the last 60 years as a result of habitat loss. However the species has fared much better in the south of Sweden where, thanks to efforts of farmers, healthy populations of the bees can be found in areas of the province of Skane. 

Conservationists are now ready to begin the delicate work of transferring a small number of the queens to new habitats in England, in the hope they will re-colonise meadows and farmland in the south east. 

Over the next two weeks, healthy queen bees will be collected from Skane province in southern Sweden using bee nets, and then carefully transferred into vials. These will be placed in refrigeration which will make the bees drowsy and induce a temporary hibernation. 

The bees will return with the project team to England by ferry before being placed in quarantine at Royal Holloway, University of London to ensure they are free from diseases or parasites which could affect our native wildlife. 

Careful planning

Dr Nikki Gammans, Project Officer added: “We have been carefully planning this expedition for months with our Swedish colleagues - it’s very exciting now to be heading off to collect the queens which we hope will be the first of a new UK colony.

 “This project is about restoring a lost piece of the jigsaw for our countryside wildlife and it is going to be a very special moment when we finally introduce them to their new home later this year.”

Dr Pete Brotherton, Head of Biodiversity at Natural England added: “Bees play a vital role in the countryside and the loss of the short haired bumblebee serves as a stark reminder that many of our bees are in real trouble.

 “But this species recovery project shows that when conservationists and farmers work together we can really turn things around. The bumblebees now have ideal habitat waiting for them in Kent, giving them an excellent chance of re-establishing themselves. We are really excited about their return to England - these bees belong in our countryside and it'll be great to have them back.” 

Restoring lost wildlife

RSPB ecologist Dr Jane Sears said: “We’ve lost 97 per cent of our wild flower meadows in the past 60 years and this has had a devastating impact on our precious native bumblebees.

“Through this project we want to show that by working together we can restore lost wildlife to our countryside. But this isn’t just about one species – we want to create a healthy, vibrant habitat for a whole range of insects, wild plants, birds and other animals.”

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s CEO, Dr Ben Darvill said: “In the last 70 years two bumblebee species have become extinct and many more have declined dramatically.

“They are of course familiar and endearing garden insects but they also have a very important role to play as pollinators. Without their free services our flowering crops would be less productive and our wildflowers would set less seed, leading to sweeping changes to the UK countryside.”

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