Back at last

28th May 2012, Monday

Back in 2008 we started planning the return of the short-haired bumblebee Bombus subterraneus, a species last seen in the UK at Dungeness in 1988 and declared extinct in 2000.  We have searched every year for this insect since the late 1990s and considerable effort has been devoted to restoring legume-rich pasture, first at the RSPB reserve, and then across Romney Marsh.  Initially plans to bring back New Zealand bees, descended from British insects, failed because the insect was difficult to breed in captivity and also very inbred.  However the project was thrown a lifeline by Swedish entomologists who reported the healthiest population of this insect in Europe.  Otherwise it is highly endangered across the continent due to loss of wild flower-rich pastures.

So, today 51 Swedish females were released on the RSPB reserve at Dungeness.Bombus subterraneus 

This was one of the first specimens I

saw, just after its release, feeding on ground ivy.  Note the characteristically short hair exposing bald patches in places on the body like a cuckoo bee, but with a longer face.  The tail  is whitish with 2 narrow pale bands above it.  There are a couple of yellow bands either side of the thorax, although the bees I saw were rather dark and this feature did not show up well – see picture below.

Bombus subterraneus on red clover

These insects have been in captivity for a couple of weeks, in quarantine, so it was pleasing to see that on release they immediately took to feeding obligingly for the cameras.

They will not stay at Dungeness necessarily and could turn up anywhere on Romney Marsh and Rye Bay, so keep a careful watch for them.

Thanks to the various parties involved, our friends in Sweden, the RSPB who have prepared the reserve to be in fantastic condition for the reintroduction, Natural England for funding the project, and insect charities the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus.  And last but not least to Project Officer Nikki Gammans, who has worked her socks off the past few weeks getting the bees ready, and her volunteer supporters, for a very successful day.

For more information click here