Extinct Short-haired bumblebee returns to Britain after 24 years

Flowering fields in Kent will today 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.

The culmination of a three year reintroduction project, backed by Natural England, the RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus, will see queen bees released at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve this morning.  The partnership will closely monitor how the bees take to their new surroundings and over the summer months, surveys will be carried out to determine bee numbers and to see if they are exploring beyond the release site.

The Short-haired bumblebee is one of 27 bumblebee species native to the UK. It 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 in 1988 and declared extinct in 2000.

The Short-haired bumblebee project hinges 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.

The Short-haired bumblebees being released today have been brought over with great care from Sweden by project leader Dr Nikki Gammans and her team. 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.

Poul Christensen, Chair of Natural England commented: “The return of one of Britain’s lost species is a cause for celebration. This is a great example of the type of dedicated partnership between farmers, scientists and conservation organisations that can make a real difference for wildlife in this country.”

Environment Minister, Richard Benyon said: “The drone of the bee is one of the sounds of summer and bringing back this species of bumblebee after it’s been absent from the UK for 12 years is wonderful news.  I hope it will thrive and in time, spread to new areas.”

RSPB Conservation director Martin Harper said: “Dungeness is a spectacular place and a haven for a wide range of wildlife. We have put in a lot of work here recreating flower meadows which are vital if we are going to bring bumblebees back to our countryside.

“This area was the last place the Short-haired bumblebee was recorded before it disappeared 24 years ago so it is very exciting to see it finally coming home.  But this is just the start – we will all be working hard to make sure this, and other threatened bumblebee species, expand their ranges and recolonise south eastern England.

Dr Ben Darvill, CEO for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust said; "Bumblebees are now scarce in many farmland areas due to intensive agriculture. The work in the South East of England, in preparation for this reintroduction, shows what is possible when bee-friendly practises are used. Farmers here are running successful businesses and producing food, whilst supporting healthy pollinator populations. Bumblebees are farmers' friends, so it makes sense to support them. We hope the successes in the South East will encourage others to help bumblebees too."

Paul Lee from Hymettus said; “We are delighted with the way the project has moved forward. The benefits can already be seen in the return of several threatened species of bumblebee to the area and this successful reintroduction of the Short-haired bumblebee would be helping restore yet another link in the ecological network, and provide one of the iconic sights and sounds of the British countryside.”

Read more about this project in our Case study section.


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