From Sweden with buzz

From Sweden with buzz

Bombus subterraneus

Bombus subterraneus (photo credit: James K. Lindsey)

A precious cargo will soon be on the way from Sweden to the UK over the next couple of weeks. At the weekend a team of bee specialists are buzzing of to Sweden to collect 100 queen bees of the species Bombus subterraneus as part of plans to re-establish the species in the UK.

Bombus subterraneus or the short-haired bumblebee went extinct in the UK in 1988 after suffering 60 years of declines. Now conservationists hope to re-establish the species  at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve later this spring. [pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

Organisations working together to bring back short-haired bumblebee.

The plan is part of the Natural England species Recovery Plan and involves 4 organisations:

  • Natural England,
  • RSPB,
  • Hymettus,
  • Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Habitat loss resulted in the bee going extinct in the UK and this has led to the team looking to south Sweden – a stronghold of the bee – to introduce the new population. From the reserve at Dungeness the conservationists are hoping the the short-haired bumblebee will re-establish it’s territory on improved farmlands and meadows across Kent and beyond.

Re-introduced bumblebees to come from South Sweden.

The bee specialist will be collecting the queen bees from Skane using nets. Once caught the bees will be stored in refrigerated containers. The cold should send the queens into a state of hibernation and they will be bought back to the UK when the scientists return.

After spending time in quarantine at Royal Holloway to ensure they are not transferring diseases back to the UK the bees will be released.

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.” 

Hopes for success after failed attempt to bring bumblebees back from New Zealand.

The team hopes that the plan to bring queen bees in from Sweden will be successful after a failed attempt to re-introduce the bees from New Zealand. The New Zealand plan was more complex to put in place as there is a ban on importing wild caught live bees in to the UK. This meant that queen bees had to be captive bred to produce a second generation that could be imported.

Bumble bees are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity and the captive bred stock numbers proved to be non-viable. There was also the problem that New Zealand short-haired bees, while originating from the UK, were thought to originate from just 2 queen bees so having a very weak genetic diversity. Added to that were studies which showed that bees transplanted across hemispheres really do not perform or survive very well and the decision was made to look for a European source.

Choice of short-haired bumble bees from Sweden or Estonia.

The two most likely sources were Sweden or Estonia and with the Estonian population listed as near-threatened the best source for the new population was Sweden. With Sweden being within the EU it meant that there was no import restrictions, apart from disease prevention, on wild caught queen bees. 

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.

Updated story: 28th April 2012 – Anger grows in Sweden over bee imports.

External sites:

Hymettus: The short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project report 2009-2011  (pdf).