Short-haired bumblebees buzz back from extinction

Once extinct in the UK, short-haired bumblebees are thriving in Kent thanks to a three-year-long project

The short-haired bumblebee has successfully nested in the UK for the first time in 25 years, thanks to a reintroduction project by conservationists.

One of Britain’s 27 native bumblebee species, the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) had not been recorded in the UK since 1988 and was declared extinct from the country in 2000.

The Short-haired Bumblebee Project, funded by Natural England, the RSPB, Hymettus, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, collected queen bees from a healthy population in Sweden and released them in June to RSPB Dungeness in Kent, the same site where the bumblebees were last seen a quarter of a century ago.

One month later, young worker bees were discovered; evidence that the queens had successfully nested. “The first offspring worker bees are the first step towards a viable, self-sustaining population,” said Nik Shelton from the RSPB.

The project has been working for three years alongside conservation groups and farmers to prepare over 850 hectares of suitable flower-rich habitat.

The short-haired bumblebee was once widespread across the south of England and could be found as far north as Humberside. However, the intensification of Britain’s agriculture after the second world war to feed the growing population caused the destruction of its natural habitat. Since the 1930s, 97% of wild flower meadows have been lost, according to Natural England.

Ongoing monitoring and surveying will be carried out by the project to determine short-haired bumblebee numbers and to see if they are exploring beyond the release site. Further releases of bees are also planned to help continue building the population.

Gavin Measures, Natural England’s lead adviser for biodiversity, said: “It’s still early days for the short-haired bumblebee. This year’s release will bolster the population and gene pool. Combined with all the hard work from local farmers, the species is getting the best start we can give it.”