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Scientists unite to improve the plight of the bumblebee

Published: 
23 May 2006

A new organisation which aims to halt the population decline of bumblebees in the UK is being launched by scientists at the University of Southampton and the University of Stirling.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), membership of which is open to all, will raise awareness of the importance of bumblebees in the ecosystem through activities such as bumblebee walks, identification workshops and a regular newsletter.

One of the Trust's major aims is to promote wildlife gardening, particularly the growing of wildflowers to provide nectar and pollen for bees and other wildlife. Anyone interested in joining should visit the website at www.bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk.

Ben Darvill, researcher in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southampton, and joint organiser of the new Trust, commented: "It may surprise some people to know that in Britain and Ireland we have twenty-five different kinds of native bumblebee.

"However, this may not be the case for much longer as two of our native species have become extinct since the Second World War, and fifteen have undergone major range contractions in recent decades, with several more facing extinction in the near future unless action is taken. Currently five bumblebee species are designated UK Biological Action Plan (UKBAP) species, in recognition of their decline, with three more species scheduled for inclusion.

"Bumblebees are fascinating and beautiful insects that deserve conserving in their own right but there are far more pressing ecological and economic reasons to halt their decline. They are major pollinators of a majority of our flora. If bumblebees continue to disappear our native plants will set less seed, potentially resulting in gradual but sweeping changes to the countryside. Clovers, vetches, and many rare plants may disappear. Indeed, there is evidence that this process is already underway.

"These changes will have catastrophic knock-on effects for other wildlife dependent on these plants, such as birds, and small mammals. As such, it is often argued that bumblebees are keystone species, and that they are a conservation priority."

Bumblebees are also of commercial importance, with many arable and horticultural crops depending on them for pollination to varying degrees. Broad, field and runner beans and raspberries are heavily dependent on bumblebees. There is already evidence that in some regions where fields are large and there are few hedgerows, in which bumblebee queens can forage in spring and build their nests, crop yields are depressed owing to a shortage of bumblebees.

"It is essential," continues Ben, "that we take measures to conserve our remaining bumblebee populations, and if possible restore them to something like their past abundance. This cannot be achieved with existing nature reserves and must involve a much wider programme of conservation - which is where the new Trust aims to help."

Notes for editors

  1. Bumblebee nests are large, containing up to 400 sterile workers, each of which travels more than 1 km from the colony in search of suitable flowers.
    Each nest needs many hectares of suitable flower-rich habitat, meaning that to support a healthy population that is viable in the long term, large areas of land must be managed sympathetically. UK nature reserves are simply too small, the researchers argue. The only way to provide sufficient areas of habitat for bumblebees is if the wider, farmed countryside, and the vast areas covered by suburban gardens, are managed in a suitable way. To do this the research team believes we need to educate people, and encourage activities such as the planting of wildflowers and traditional cottage-garden flowers in gardens; the replanting of hedgerows; and the recreation of hay meadow and chalk grassland habitats.
  2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for research and scholarship. One of the UK's top 10 research universities, it offers first-rate opportunities and facilities for study and research across a wide range of subjects in humanities, health, science and engineering, and has a strong enterprise agenda. The University has nearly 20,000 students and 5000 staff based across its campuses in Southampton and Winchester. Its annual turnover is in the region of £287 million.
    The University is one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. It is home to a range of world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

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