Natural England
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Hope for UK’s threatened bumblebees as lost species given second chance

An extinct British bumblebee species got a boost yesterday as a new generation of queens are released on the edge of Kent.

Experts have spent two weeks collecting short-haired bumblebees from farmland in southern Sweden and yesterday they will be reintroduced to the RSPB’s reserve at Dungeness in Kent.

The project, backed by Natural England, RSPB, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus, began last year with an initial pilot reintroduction which followed four years of work with local farmers to create the ideal wildflower habitat for bumblebees across Romney Marsh and Dungeness.

Conservationists have hailed the story as a sign of hope for all of the UK’s bumblebees. Of the 25 native species in the UK seven are declining and two are extinct - one of which is the short-haired bumblebee.

Prior to the short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project, the last confirmed sighting was recorded in the UK in Kent in 1988. Another extinct bumblebee species, Cullem’s bumblebee, vanished from our shores more than 70 years ago.

The recent State of Nature report, published by 25 leading conservation groups, highlighted the short-haired bumblebee project as a beacon of hope for bumblebees in the UK. The report found that insects as a whole are one of the hardest hit species groups. A larger proportion of insects are declining compared with other species groups.

Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon said: “This is a fantastic project and I'd like to thank all those involved. I hope the project succeeds and we can once again have a thriving population of short-haired bumblebees, not only in Kent and East Sussex, but throughout the UK.”

Dr Nikki Gammans, project manager, said: “Bumblebees are an intrinsic part of the British countryside, but some species are disappearing before our eyes. That’s why the project to bring back the short-haired bumblebee is so important. Bringing this extinct species back to the UK shows what can be done for wildlife by working together. The queens we released last year have had a very tough time with the weather last summer, so it was vital that we return to Sweden and bring back more queens to bolster the colony at Dungeness. There’s a lot more work to be done but thanks to the local farmers in this area of Kent and East Sussex, our friends in Sweden, a crack team of volunteers and the wildlife experts involved in the project, there is hope for all our threatened bumblebees.”

Gavin Measures, Natural England’s lead adviser for biodiversity, said: “It's still early days for the short-haired bumblebee. Reintroductions take time and it may be another year before we see signs of successful breeding. This year's release will bolster the population and gene pool; combined with all the hard work from local farmers across Romney Marsh the species is getting the best start we can give it."

Gill Perkins, Bumblebee Conservation Trust Conservation Manager, said: “Our support for this innovative project demonstrates that we are committed to ensuring we do what we can to protect and enhance bumblebees and the environment. We would encourage farmers, landowners and communities to get involved and help to protect these economically important charismatic creatures and in particular the short haired bumblebee.”

Notes to Editors

1. This press release was issued on behalf of Natural England, RSPB, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus.

2. For more information, please contact:

Lyndon Marquis, Natural England’s press officer 0300 060 4236 / 07786 277 223 /
lyndon.marquis@naturalengland.org.uk

Nik Shelton, RSPB media officer 01767 693 554 / 07739 921 464 / nik.shelton@rspb.org.uk

3. Background

A reintroduction was tried here last year but it was a very cold wet summer. We continue to monitor across the release area for any signs of emerging queens from last year, now the white dead nettle, the bee’s favourite early source of nectar, is flowering. Over the summer months, our team of volunteers will also be regularly monitoring fields planted with wildflowers and red clover for the presence of short-haired and other rare bumblebees.

Short-haired bumblebees (Bombus subterraneus) were once was once widespread across the south of England and its range stretched from Cornwall to Yorkshire. But it began to decline in the second half of the 20th Century as the wildflower rich grassland habitats it relies on began to disappear and was eventually declared extinct in the UK in 2000.

The project is working with farmers, conservation groups, small holders and other land owners in the area to create flower-rich habitat. To date the project has had enormous success with bumblebee habitat creation. More than 700 hectares of land is now managed, mostly under Environmental Stewardship Scheme, to provide ideal conditions for bumblebees and other pollinators. Environmental Stewardship is administered by Natural England on behalf of Defra and funds farmers and land managers throughout England to deliver effective environmental management on their land.

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. They have helped create corridors of suitable habitat linking farmland and nature reserves in the area, allowing bees to spread out. By creating corridors of flower-rich habitat across Romney Marsh area, we have seen an increase and spread in the numbers of bumblebee species in Kent. 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.

Bees in the UK continue to suffer declines due to a loss of habitat - Britain has lost 97% of flowering meadows in the last 60 years. This concerns conservationists and scientists because bees are a vital pollinator of our food crops with an estimated worth of £510 million a year. Defra’s
National Ecosystem Assessment 2011 report estimates that pollinating insects are worth £430 million a year – the cost to pollinate our food crops each year if they disappeared altogether. A recent Friends of the Earth report updated the cost to £510 million.

4. Useful links

Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project

State of Nature report

England’s lost and threatened species report


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