Bumblebees are familiar, iconic and essential wild pollinators. As insects go they are large and robust. They are built to withstand the British climate and can even be seen foraging in the rain. They are industrious and relentless and provide a great service to the wild plants and flowering crops across the countryside, many of which would struggle to reproduce or set good quality and quantities of fruit without them.

Sadly, however, the fate of some of our 25 resident bumblebee species has taken a downturn in relatively recent times, following World War 2. One of these species, the Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subteranneus) was officially declared extinct in the UK in 2000 and now its status on our shores hangs in the balance of a reintroduction programme. A further eight species are in danger, having declined dramatically, with two of these species in real trouble: the Great Yellow (B. distinguendus), now reduced to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the Shrill carder bee (B. sylvarum) which is hanging on in pockets across the south of England and Wales.


Brown-banded carder bee, Bombus humilis. Photo: Ray Reeves

Farming practices have changed dramatically over the last 80 years. Political decisions in response to food shortages during war, technological advances and more recently pressure from supermarkets and their consumers have transpired to create the highly productive, intensified agricultural practices we see today.

Undoubtedly, productivity of the land has vastly increased, however, an unwanted by-product of these changes is that we have fewer hedgerows, we rarely see land left fallow anymore or traditional hay meadows, which have largely become obsolete in modern conventional farming with the advent of inorganic fertiliser.

The loss of foraging habitat for bees and other pollinating insects across the UK has been massive. More than 97% of wildflower hay meadows have gone since 1937. As you would expect, this has had a rather damning effect for many of the species which we would naturally want to encourage, especially in the wake of more modern pressures like expanding development and climate change.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, an organisation set up to raise awareness about the importance of bumblebees and reverse their declines, is currently involved a collaborative National Lottery funded project across England called Back from the Brink, which aims to prevent 20 threatened species from becoming extinct. The organisation’s role in the project is to aid the recovery of the Shrill-carder bee in England. As part of the work to protect this species, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is recruiting and training volunteers to help monitor Shrill carder populations and establish the species’ distribution.

BBCT runs the national bumblebee recording scheme, BeeWalk, to help better understand bumblebee populations across the UK and volunteers are always welcome.

To find out more about the work of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, including how you can get involved or support their vital work visit bumblebeeconservation.org.


This article first appeared in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe here or buy from your local newsagent.