Ten years on . . . restored Kent and East Sussex landscape brings the buzz back for rare bumblebees

A decade ago a pioneering landscape scale project began, aiming to bring back a rare bumblebee, extinct in the UK, to the South Kent and East Sussex coastline.

Ten years later three species of rare bumblebees have increased in significant numbers on the Kent and East Sussex Marshes around Dungeness. The work carried out during the project by an amazing community of scientists, conservationists, volunteers and nearly 100 farmers and landowners, has restored a valuable ecosystem largely lost from the UK over a large area. The changes have benefited a wide range of species such as mammals, insects, flowers and birds in addition to the flagship bumblebees.

The project, formally known as the Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project is co-ordinated by Dr Nikki Gammans here at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust who has led the work since it started.

The three rare bumblebee species most frequently encountered in the project area, the Moss Carder bee (Bombus muscorum), the Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis), and the Ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus) have all increased in abundance on sites where the project has carried out habitat advice and planting. The nationally rare Ruderal bumblebee has increased most significantly, and the project area is now one of the best places in the country for the species. All three rare bumblebee species have been recorded returning to areas where they had not been seen for up to 25 years.

On nature reserves, such as RSPB Dungeness, citizen science monitoring by skilled volunteers has shown that rare bumblebees have increased eight-fold. Away from reserves on areas including farm land, and small holdings, rare bees have increased threefold as a direct result of the habitat restoration and improved long term monitoring.

Dr Gammans said; “The project has been able to restore and improve the management of a large area and the benefits are there for a wide range of species not just bumblebees. We have succeeded in creating a sustainable and resilient connecting landscape by working with a diversity of landowners and monitoring by local volunteers.”

Gill Perkins, CEO Bumblebee Conservation Trust said; “Over the past decade Dungeness and the surrounding area has become a hotspot for other rare bumblebees and it’s probably the best place in the country to see the Ruderal bumblebee in particular. The project has created, quite simply, an amazing place for bumblebees.”

Initially the project aimed to create 100 hectares of flower-rich bumblebee-friendly habitat by the end of 2012, through direct habitat management and by advising farmers (alongside Natural England advisors) and landowners. Ten years on the scale has expanded considerably and Dr Gammans and her dedicated team of 45 volunteers have worked with 50 farmers and 45 other landowners, advising on over 1,300 hectares of farm land and a further 447.6 hectares of other land. In addition the project has engaged with over 30,500 people through school visits, events, talks, summer walks and many other outreach activities.

The original driving force behind the project was to reintroduce the Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), once widespread across the south of England and seen as far north as Humberside, but last recorded near Dungeness in 1988 and declared extinct within the UK in 2000.

Sadly, despite huge efforts from Dr Gammans and her team, several years of reintroductions using queen Short-haired bumblebees from New Zealand and Sweden and significant support from the scientific and conservation community including the RSPB and Natural England, the reintroduction programme appears to have been unsuccessful.

Dr Gammans said; “The story of the Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction programme demonstrates how hard it is to bring back something once extinct. The best thing to do is to stop species from becoming extinct in the first place. We should conserve what we already have and work hard to prevent future extinctions by habitat restoration.“

Gill Perkins added; “Reintroductions are increasingly being seen as a silver bullet for species conservation. They should not be as they need a huge amount of time, effort, money, and, frankly, luck, to be successful. While the Short-haired bumblebee may not be back as a British breeding species the project was set up to bring rare bumblebees back and it has achieved exactly that.”

Duncan Lawie, a volunteer for all ten years, said; “The work we have done has been great for the bumblebees of the project area and I get great satisfaction from this. I also enjoy working with Nikki, the summer interns and the other volunteers, and feel like I am doing something for nature; and I delight in being “in the moment” with the bees, when they are doing their own thing.”

You can read more details about the project on our project page.

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