3 June 2012

Extinct bee is re-introduced into the UK

The short-haired bumblebee has been extinct in the United Kingdom since 1988, where its numbers declined as the result of the dramatic increase in farming that followed World War II. This extensive farming was needed to fuel Britain's rapid population growth and sadly, about 97% of the bees wildflower-rich grasslands have now been lost. 

The short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus. Bees vision is at the ultraviolet end of the electromagnetic spectrum so the insects see blues and purples very prominently, as well as light that our eyes cannot see. As a result, they seem to prefer blue and purple flowers to those that are red or yellow.

However, the loss of their habitat hasn't phased conservationists in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in their reserve at Dungeness, Kent (one of the larger counties in the UK). The team have spent the last three years planting as many many wildflowers as possible and have created lush meadows that are already benefiting other species of endangered bee that are still endemic in the UK, such as the shrill carder bee, and the RSPB now thinks that they are ready for the short-haired bumblebee to make its return.

"There will be a really good chance that it [the short-haired bumblebee] will establish, it will  become self sustainable and spread." Nikki Gammons from the Short-haired Bumblebee Project.

The generosity of the Swedish government has made the bee's return possible, who have given scientists permission to go and collect up to 100 new queens from their countryside. The short-haired bee is still common in Sweden and removing a small number of queens such as this shouldn't have an impact on their populations there. Once in the UK, 20 - 30% of the queens are expected to survive their hibernation over their first winter here (which is very high odds for the survival rates of an introduced species) and the colonies that they form are expected to be able to survive fairly well in RSPB Dungeness, persisting there long-term.

Many local farmers are also involved in the project, which also been funded by Natural England and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (in addition to that of the RSPB), who are planning to leave the edges of their fields untouched. These wild strips, or 'corridors', will contain many of the flowers that the bees need to survive and will help the short-haired bumblebee to spread across its ancient endemic ranges throughout southern England.

Want to help the bees?

Although the re-introduction of the short-haired bee into the UK will hopefully be a success, it doesn't change the fact that bee numbers are crashing worldwide. There are various reasons for this - some are due to man and some are not; but regardless, their loss will have profound implications to us. Bees are estimated to be involved in the production of around a third of all human food by pollinating our crops and represent US$40 billion in terms of the services that they provide to the human agricultural industry - in the UK alone, bees contribute more than £400 million a year to our economy by pollinating crops and medicinal plants!

The production and use of highly toxic neonicotinoid pesticides is one of the major contributors to the demise of bees, a fact that AVAAZ is trying to remedy. By signing their petition you can support AVAAZ when they confront Bayer (one of the major producers of the pesticides) and try to get the company to stop their production. Please consider spending a few seconds to sign this petition - bees are crucial organisms for global ecosystems and need our help!

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