Extinct bumblebee to return to Britain

26 Apr 2012 02:53 PM

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.

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 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. 

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.” 

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.”


The extensive preparations being made for the bees’ release include the creation of carefully prepared bumblebee-friendly habitat for them in Kent.  Natural England, RSPB and Hymettus have been working with farmers across Romney Marsh and Dungeness in the last three years to prepare flowering field margins in an attempt to give the bees the best possible start and encourage other wildlife across the area.  More than 650 hectares of land is now managed, mostly under the Environmental Stewardship Scheme, to provide ideal conditions for bumblebees.

Through the Bee, Wasp and Ant Recording Society, Swedish ecologists were contacted last year with the proposal and were able to advise on the suitable locations and grant the necessary permissions to catch and transport the bees.

You can follow the progress of Nikki and her team on the blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts here,
Twitter -
shbumblebeeproject @nikkigammans
Facebook - The short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project
Blog -

Natural England is the government’s independent adviser on the natural environment. Established in 2006 our work is focused on enhancing England’s wildlife and landscapes and maximising the benefits they bring to the public.
 - We establish and care for England’s main wildlife and geological sites, ensuring that over 4,000 National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest are looked after and improved.
 - We work to ensure that England’s landscapes are effectively protected, designating England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and advising widely on their conservation.
 - We run Environmental Stewardship and other green farming schemes that deliver over £400 million a year to farmers and landowners, enabling them to enhance the natural environment across two thirds of England’s farmland.
 - We fund, manage, and provide scientific expertise for hundreds of conservation projects each year, improving the prospects for thousands of England’s species and habitats.
 - We promote access to the wider countryside, helping establish National Trails and coastal trails and ensuring that the public can enjoy and benefit from them.
About the Species Recovery Programme

The RSPB speaks out for wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Wildlife and the environment face many threats. Our work is focussed on the species and habitats that are in the greatest danger. Our work is driven by the passionate belief that birds and wildlife enrich people's lives. We have more than one million members, over 13,500 volunteers, 1,300 staff, more than 200 nature reserves, 10 regional offices, four country offices... and one vision - to work for a better environment rich in birds and wildlife.