The story of the reintroduction of a bumblebee species
Text Meelis Uustal
Photo Eha Kruus
Short-haired bumblebee Urukimalane Bombus subterraneus
The bumblebees of open landscapes, with long mouth parts, such as the short-haired bumblebee and the great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus), are often the first to retire in face of intensive agriculture, becoming extinct in the area. So it happened with the short-haired bumblebee in Great Britain where the species has not been seen after 1988. 20 years later, however, British scientists and conservationists joined forces to try to bring it back.
The reintroduction idea was hatched from the fact that 130 years ago 97 female bumblebees were brought from England to New Zealand, among those also short-haired bumblebees. The naive goal of the introduction of bumblebees and many other animals and plants was to populate New Zealand with familiar and beloved European species. Thus female bumblebees in their winter hibernation sleep were dug up from the soil in England and brought by ship to New Zealand. Not all insects survived the journey, but some did. In the new island the bumblebees adapted well and spread everywhere. From the viewpoint of New Zealand nature, however, it was not a blessing but a scourge of invasive alien species that helped to spread other plant species originating from Europe and disturbed the unique native communities.
All at once bumblebee researchers had the idea that what if we were to try to lessen this damage at least a little and the short-haired bumblebee population of New Zealand were to be used to restore the population its original country. The preparations took years. Firstly, nests of the short-haired bumblebee had to be found – some were found on New Zealand fallow lands. Then it had to be clarified and tested whether this species could be reared in artificial nests and mated. Catching mated female bumblebees in nature just before they went underground to hibernate would have been a hopeless task. Sadly, breeding of short-haired bumblebees in artificial surroundings did not succeed. Moreover it turned out that the short-haired bumblebee population there originated from just 2 forebears and 100 years of inbreeding had affected their gene pool quite badly. Thus it was decided, although reluctantly, to declare the enterprise as foiled.
However, it turned out that the short-haired bumblebees in South Sweden are much closer genetically to the one-time conspecifics in Great Britain than the direct descendants in New Zealand. And of course with a good genetic diversity. So it was decided in cooperation with the Swedes to bring short-haired bumblebees to Great Britain from Sweden instead where the shorthaired bumblebee population is doing quite nicely.
Dungeness in the county of Kent became the area for reintroduction of short-haired bumblebees. Before releasing the bumblebees the farmers, landowners and gardeners in Dungeness were recruited into the project. Their task was to sow and plant bumblebee-friendly plants that would offer the arriving bumblebees food from spring to autumn. In 2012 and 2013 tens of short-haired bumblebees were released in Dungeness. By now they have also started breeding in the area – workers have been seen both last year and this year. And more – several other very rare bumblebees have returned after a long time to Dungeness.
Read about the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebees on the project’s web site (LINK). Several good video stories have been made from it – see HERE, HERE and HERE.
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Bumblebee identification forms: LINK