Farmers in Kent are playing a vital part in a project to bring the short-haired bumblebee back to England, nearly a quarter of a century after the pollinating insects were declared extinct in Britain.
A short- haired bumblebee on clover
Queen bees - collected with permission from the Swedish authorities - will be released at Dungeness, Kent today in the culmination of a three year reintroduction project, backed by Natural England, the RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus.
The short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) was formerly widespread in south-eastern England and could be found as far as Yorkshire and Cornwall. Numbers fell during the twentieth century and by the 1980s it was restricted to Dungeness and the Romney Marshes in Kent. It was last seen in Britain as long ago as 1988 and officially declared extinct in 2000.
The success of the reintroduction project depends on the creation of healthy bumblebee habitat by local farmers. Using Environmental Stewardship funding, farmers in Dungeness have been preparing for the bees’ homecoming by growing flower-rich borders and meadows essential for a range of nectar feeding insects from bumblebees to butterflies.
Farmers have helped create corridors of suitable habitat linking farmland and nature reserves in the area, allowing many pollinators to spread. More than 650 hectares of land is now managed, mostly under Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship Scheme, to provide ideal conditions for bumblebees. Five threatened species, including England’s rarest bumblebee the shrill carder bee, have already increased their geographic range in this area after decades of decline.
Larry Cooke, an arable and sheep farmer on Romney Marsh, is one of the famers giving the bumblebees a helping hand. He said: “We need bees and other insects for food production, so it’s vital that we look after them and provide habitats where they can thrive.
“With the support of Environmental Stewardship, we’ve been growing vetches and red clover which supports bees and other insects by providing them with a long season and works with us alongside main agricultural production. This has not only benefited the insects but other wildlife like brown hares and farmland birds. I know we are giving this new bee population the best possible start here in Kent and I look forward to seeing them on the farm.”
Simon Ashworth, who also farms on Romney Marsh added: “My brother and I took over my father’s farm in the 1950’s and we haven’t changed the way it runs! We farm beef, sheep, potatoes and wheat and all the fields are in ELS or older stewardship schemes. Wild flower borders around our fields are planted with pollen and nectar mixes which encourage the foraging of bumblebees.”
The decline of bee populations in the UK is of concern to farmers, conservationists and scientists because bees are a vital pollinator of our food crops with an estimated worth of £510 million a year.
The short-haired bumblebees being released in Kent have been brought over with great care from Sweden by project leader Dr Nikki Gammans. With close cooperation from bee experts and the Skåne County Administrative Board in Sweden, queen bees were collected from meadows in Sweden earlier this month, and then quarantined at Royal Holloway, University of London for two weeks prior to today’s release. During quarantine, the bees were screened for parasites to make sure that only healthy bees and no foreign parasites would be re-introduced to the UK.
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