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Bumblebees - An Update

In May of 2009, I wrote in these columns that, “It is good to record that the University of Stirling is in the forefront of research into the lives of bumblebees as we become ever more concerned for the implications for the human race of a drastic reduction in the number of pollinating insects. … But when Gillian Lye (the author of the Stirling University 2009 study) examined what happens in the Spring, when bumblebee queens emerge from hibernation with the need to raise their first batch of worker bees entirely on their own and need to find a suitable nesting site with plenty of nectar-rich wildflowers close by, she discovered that the conventional belief that hedgerows offer the best nest sites was mistaken. Instead, she discovered that the margins of fields, ideally with abandoned mouse holes among tussocky grass, represent five-star hotels for the queen bees. These areas are also likely to be places where wildflowers are plentiful, offering the busy bee a choice of restaurants to supplement her excellent nest site.”

But, despite my optimism 2½ years ago, our bumblebees still face huge problems, as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which is based in the University of Stirling, reported recently. The decline in the number of bumblebee species in the United Kingdom continues unabated, the Trust says, as does the total number of bumblebees. Two species have disappeared altogether from these islands and a further six species may face national extinction unless action is taken soon; and, while it may seem to the layman that the fact that there are still 24 species living in the United Kingdom, experts are very concerned about the continuing decline and are calling for bumblebees to be made a conservation priority.

And the Trust recently reported that someone is actually listening, for the Heritage Lottery Fund is providing £340 000 to help support the Bees for Everyone project. Dr. Ben Darvill, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Chief Executive Officer, said, “The Bees for Everyone project is only now beginning, but over the next three years this ambitious project will build on the most successful elements of our work to date.” This project has two principal aims, which are, to quote Dr. Darvill again, “To support rare bumblebees throughout the UK through active conservation work to safeguard, restore and create valuable bumblebee habitats; and to raise public awareness of the importance of bumblebees and the problems that they face, inspiring individual action.”

There are many reasons why every one of us should share Dr. Darvill’s concern, for many crops depend on bumblebees for pollination to varying degrees. Beans, fruits, tomatoes and soft fruit crops all need insect pollination. If the population of bumblebees continues to decline, Dr. Darvill’s team warns, we may not actually starve but we will have to eat much more rice, pasta and bread. And bumblebees are major pollinators of our wildflowers, without whose essential visits there would be major changes in the appearance of the British countryside as fewer wildflower seed means fewer wildflowers with the countryside losing much of its colour and some species of plants possibly disappearing altogether.

The Trust believes that more must be done to make farmers, land managers and gardeners aware of bee-friendly land management. Small changes can make a big difference; there are simple ways to encourage wildflowers in hedgerows, meadows and orchards; little patches of wildflowers in field corners, margins, gardens, waste ground and roadside verges will help. We should all remember this when we are planning next year’s gardens!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society