First successful captive breeding paves way for reintroduction of extinct bumblebee to UK


Bumblebee experts have discovered a way of breeding the Short-haired Bumblebee in captivity, removing the last major hurdle for its successful reintroduction to the UK. Announcing the news at the British Ecological Society's "Gardening for wildlife" event at the British Science Festival today [Monday 7th September], Dr Nikki Gammans will reveal that the secret of successful captive breeding of the Short-haired Bumblebee — declared extinct in the UK in 2000 — lies in what you feed a very fussy eater.

Short-haired Bumblebee (Photo: Dave Goulson)

According to Gammans, project officer for the Short-haired Bumblebee reintroduction project: "The Short-haired Bumblebee is a very fussy eater. It needs fresh pollen every day, and not any old pollen. It needs high-quality pollen that has been collected by other bumblebees."

The method was developed not by scientists, but by Czech bumblebee enthusiast Jaromir Cizek. Now in his 50s, Cizek has been fascinated with bumblebees since he was eight years old. After his method of captive breeding the Short-haired Bumblebee was confirmed by Dr Vladimir Ptacek, a biologist at Brno University, Gammans travelled to the Czech Republic to learn how the method works.

Armed with this knowledge Gammans will travel to MacKenzie Country in New Zealand's South Island in November, where she and a team of volunteers will spend between four and eight weeks hunting and capturing as many Short-haired Bumblebee queens as possible as they emerge from hibernation. The queens will then be bred in captivity in New Zealand and the next generation — which should emerge in January and February 2010 — will be kept in hibernation and flown back to the UK.

The Short-haired Bumblebee became extinct in England in 2000, but for over a century a small number of the original English population has clung on in New Zealand, having been transported there in the late 19th century to pollinate Red Clover crops. The bees were shipped aboard the first refrigerated lamb boats, and established small populations on the south island of New Zealand, but there they remain unprotected and under threat.

Viper's-bugloss (Photo: Dave Goulson)

"New Zealand is about to begin a programme to control Viper's-bugloss because it's a non-native plant. But the Short-haired Bumblebees depend on it, so this is a now-or-never chance to rescue some of these bumblebees. If we're successful, this will be the first time a species has been reintroduced to the UK by bringing back direct descendants of the extinct population," says Gammans.

In the UK, everything is in place to welcome the Short-haired Bumblebee back when it is released next year at Dungeness in Kent, the last recorded site for the species in the UK. The project team has been working with local farmers, landowners and the public to make sure the bumblebees have enough of the right flowers to feed on.

"The public response to the reintroduction project and to the plight of bumblebees has been fantastic. The project set a target of recreating 0.2 ha in each 1km square within 10km of Dungeness and Romney Marsh. In just eight months we've managed to triple this value and land conversion is still on the increase. Bumblebee experts have been working very hard for the past 10–15 years to recreate flower-rich habitat in this area and it's working. Many farmers are keen to help the bumblebees and return some of their land back to flower-rich areas via Natural England's agri-environment schemes," Gammans explains.

"This project still has many hurdles to clear, but we are doing our best for this and all bumblebee species and hopefully they can do the rest," she adds.

The Short-haired Bumblebee project is a partnership between Natural England, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), RSPB and Hymettus.

Written by: British Ecological Society