The Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction
The Short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, is native to the UK and was once widespread across the south of England, occurring as far north as Humberside.
Post-1950s its population distribution became isolated and patchy. Its decline was almost certainly the result of the loss of the species-rich grassland habitats on which it depends.
It was last recorded near Dungeness in 1988 and was declared extinct in 2000.
To reintroduce the Short-haired bumblebee in the UK.
To establish a corridor/mosaic of suitable bumblebee habitat through Dungeness and Romney Marsh spreading into East and North Kent.
To raise the profile of bumblebee conservation through public outreach.
Key dates so far
2009: The Short-haired bumblebee partnership was formed between Natural England, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Hymettus and the RSPB.
2009 and 2010: Attempts were made to captive rear and export queens back from New Zealand to the UK but with limited success. Results from genetic analysis showed high levels of inbreeding.
2011: Natural England and the project partners agreed to change the reintroduction source location from New Zealand to a European source. Sweden was chosen as it supports the most robust population and has a broadly similar climate to the UK.
May 2011: An initial visit to Sweden found suitable source locations. A sample of bees were collected and have been checked for diseases at Royal Holloway, University of London.
May 2012: Flowering fields in Kent welcome home Bombus subterraneus – otherwise known as the Short-haired bumblebee - nearly a quarter of a century after the bee was last seen in Britain. Read more about the return in our News article.
June 2013: A further 50 Short-haired bumblebee queens are released in Kent. Click here to read the press release.
July 2013: The first Short-haired bumblebee workers were recorded within 5km of the release zone, meaning that the queens had successfully established nests within the area for the first time in 25 years! Click here to watch a video on our news page.
The project is working with farmers, conservation groups, small holders and other land owners to create flower-rich habitat within the release area of Dungeness and Romney Marsh. Over 800 hectares are now in a favourable condition in support of the reintroduction. To date this new habitat has helped to support resurgent populations of a range of Schedule 41 priority bumblebee species: Ruderal bumblebee, Bombus ruderatus; Red-shanked carder bee, Bombus ruderarius; Shrill carder bee, Bombus sylvarum; Brown-banded carder bee, Bombus humilis and Moss carder bee, Bombus muscorum.
Sourcing the queens
The Swedish Threatened Species Unit (STSU) advised that the status of the Short-haired bumblebee in Sweden has improved and it is no longer red-listed. After consulting with Naturvårdsverket, STSU further advised that samping of a limited number of queens could go ahead. Advice was sought from both Sweden's national bumblebee expert and the local bumblebee recorder before the County of Skåne in southern Sweden was finally chosen as the source of the bees. We were advised that the population in southern Sweden was strong and that there are similarities in climate between southern Sweden and the UK.
An initial visit to Sweden was made in May 2011 to find suitable locations to collect queen bees. Working with the local bumblebee recorder, suitable areas of habitat were visited and bees collected for disease screening.
Natural England undertook a full Disease Risk Assessment and Disease Management Plan in order to meet International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines on species reintroductions. This required a protocol to be followed for reducing the risk of disease transmission. The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) approved the import of the bees into the UK and the Natural England licencing unit granted a license to release them.
Collection and release
In spring 2012, with continuing permissions and the co-operation of local and national bee experts in Sweden, up to 100 queen bees were collected from two areas of Skåne in southern Sweden where good numbers of Short-haired bumblebees were found in 2011.
The bees were collected from two transects approximately 40 kilometres in length and a distance of 40 kilometres apart. Queens were collected with low intensity from along this 80 kilometre transect, meaning that there was minimal impact on the population at any one locality. Areas of Skåne which do not fall on these linear transects were not visited and samples were not collected.
The bees were then checked for mites and American foulbrood disease by a registered vet and honeybee inspector in Sweden prior to a heath certificate being signed which allows their transportation to the UK. After a period in quarantine at Royal Holloway, University of London, 50 queens were released at Dungeness nature reserve. Queens were seen for four days after release but no further sightings occurred.
On 3rd June 2013 a further release of 50 queens took place after collection from Sweden. Six weeks after release the first worker bee was recorded within the release zone. Six further workers were recorded over a 5km radius, feeding on bramble and red clover. This is the first record of a Short-haired bumblebee worker in Britain for over 25 years!
More releases are planned over the next few years to help establish a viable self-sustainable population. With so much habitat restoration work having taken place, it is crucial to maintain and build on the creation of bee-friendly flower-rich habitat. This can be achieved through flexible and targeted agri-environment schemes. Farm land within agri-environment schemes across the Romney Marsh provides continuous forage throughout the flight period and corridors for the bees to disperse. It also forms vital habitat for many other insect pollinators.
To date the project has had enormous success with bumblebee habitat creation prior to the reintroduction of the Short-haired bumblebee. The project has created, advised and assisted in the management of over 800 hectares of flower rich habitat within the release area of Dungeness and Romney Marsh.
The key to a successful re-introduction of a species like this one, which is so completely dependent on its habitat, is of course the quality of those habitats. The success of the habitat creation is being assessed through survey transects to record bumblebee species and numbers seen. Excitingly England's rarest bumblebee, the Shrill carder bee, has returned to the Dungeness RSPB reserve after a 25-year absence and the Ruderal bumblebee has come back after ten years. The project has played a large part in raising awareness of bumblebee declines through events and publicity.
It will hopefully only be a matter of time before the re-introduction initiative rolls out to cover an even wider area. If so, what is happening now in Kent, could soon be repeated at suitable locations across more of southern England and that would represent a huge expansion of the species’ range and of opportunities for other pollinators too. Perhaps most importantly, it could safeguard its long term survival.
When so many of the world’s rare and endangered species are facing a bleak and uncertain future, it makes a pleasant change to find a success story that is achieving so much for pollinators and wildlife generally.
Further information about the project can be found on the project website:
Our partner's web pages:
“Few people realise just how important bumblebees are. They are charming little things and a pleasure to see, but they also do an essential job which many people take for granted. If bumblebees continue to decline then we face ecological turmoil. Join BBCT today and support their important work.”
Naturalist, Television presenter
and BBCT President