Bumble bees are important for pollination of plants and crops, but certain species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss. For some – like the short-haired bumble bee – it is already too late. However, scientists from Royal Holloway, University of London recently collected up to 100 short-haired bumble bees in Sweden, hoping to reintroduce this species to Dungeness, an area in Kent where they were last seen nearly a quarter of a century ago.
This month, we caught up with Dr Mark Brown who was responsible for placing the bees in quarantine to find out what precautions must be taken before a species can be reintroduced to the British countryside.
Tell us a bit about your current project to reintroduce bees to Dungeness in Kent.
The UK has 24 living species of bumble bee. They are important pollinators for crops and wildflowers, as well as having value in their own right. Unfortunately, we have also lost species of bumble bee to extinction, and this is what lies behind our attempt to reintroduce a particular species of bumble bee to Kent. The short-haired bumble bee, Bombus subterraneus, was last seen in the UK in 1988. Reintroducing this species (a project run by Natural England, the RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and Hymettus) will help to restore native diversity, as well as serving as a flagship for bumble bee conservation more generally
Why is it necessary to reintroduce bees in this area?
It’s not necessary, but it is something we should aspire to. Previous insect reintroductions in the UK, such as the large blue butterfly, have been successful and both restored diversity and showcased the need for insect conservation to the British public. Dungeness, as the last place where the short-haired bumble bee was seen, as well as being one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the UK, is the ideal place to attempt a reintroduction. In preparation for this, habitat restoration and management has returned to Dungeness the floral resources that these – and other – bumble bees need. This has been achieved through the RSPB reserve itself, as well as local farmers and landowners.
The bees were collected in Sweden – why was this, and why did need to be quarantined?
The bees were collected in Sweden as this is one of the very few sites in Europe where a thriving population of this species still exists. We have to quarantine these bees to prevent foreign parasite populations entering our UK bees. During quarantine we will screen out infected queens, and thus only strong, healthy queens will be reintroduced to Dungeness.
How long were they quarantined for, and when do you hope to reintroduce them to the wild?
The bees were quarantined for 15 days. We know from our previous work that this is enough time to identify the presence of all the major parasites of bumble bees. They were reintroduced on 28 May 2012 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18194778)
You’re also a reader in Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation at Royal Holloway – tell us more about what this involves.
Reader is simply a fancy name for one of the academic grades in a university – it is above senior lecturer and below professor. As an academic, I teach students, conduct research, and play a significant administrative role. I really enjoy teaching and research, although exam marking is not my favourite job! Administration is important, but I really look forward to the summer when I can concentrate on my research and the people in my research group. It is a myth believed by many that academics have the long holidays enjoyed by school-teachers. We don’t, and most academics I know don’t even take the holidays to which they are entitled – time for research is often too valuable to waste, and we rely on our non-academic partners to make us take a break!