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Extinct bumblebee to return to Britain

Posted on 30/04/2012

A researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London is part of a team responsible for the return of a bumblebee species extinct in the UK for nearly a quarter of a century.

A team of conservationists is setting off to Sweden this weekend on a mission to collect up to 100 short haired bumblebee queens before releasing them at the RSPB’s Dungeness reserve in Kent later this Spring. 

Dr Mark Brown, from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, will be responsible for placing the bees in quarantine to ensure they are free from diseases or parasites which could affect our native wildlife. 

The project to return the bumblebee Bombus subterraneus to the UK is a partnership between Natural England, the RSPB, Hymettus and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and forms part of the wider Natural England funded Species Recovery Programme.

The short haired bumblebee was last recorded in the UK in 1988 near Dungeness. It suffered declines throughout the last 60 years as a result of habitat loss.  However the species has fared much better in the south of Sweden where, thanks to efforts of farmers, healthy populations of the bees can be found in areas of the province of Skane. 

Conservationists are now ready to begin the delicate work of transferring a small number of the queens to new habitats in England, in the hope they will re-colonise meadows and farmland in the south east. 

Over the next two weeks, healthy queen bees will be collected from Skane province in southern Sweden using bee nets, and then carefully transferred into vials.  These will be placed in refrigeration which will make the bees drowsy and induce a temporary hibernation. 

The bees will return with the project team to England by ferry before being placed in quarantine at Royal Holloway. 

Dr Nikki Gammans, Project Officer said: “We have been carefully planning this expedition for months with our Swedish colleagues - it’s very exciting now to be heading off to collect the queens which we hope will be the first of a new UK colony.

 “This project is about restoring a lost piece of the jigsaw for our countryside wildlife and it is going to be a very special moment when we finally introduce them to their new home later this year.”

Dr Brown said: “It is very exciting that, after a great deal of work, we're on the cusp of reintroducing this extinct bumblebee to the UK. I am delighted to be working with Natural England, the RSPB, Hymettus and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to help to make this happen. At Royal Holloway, we will manage the quarantine process for the Swedish queens to ensure that no harmful diseases are introduced to our native bumblebees as a result of the reintroduction.”

For all of the latest information on the project follow the RHUL Science Twitter account.


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