Creating a buzz
A century ago the Great Yellow Bumblebee could be found right across the United Kingdom.
The mustard yellow insect, with one large black stripe across its middle, and a long tongue allowing it to pollinate plants that other bees are unable to, is active in the summer months in meadow areas with an abundance of flowers.
But now after years of decline the bee is clinging on for survival – and is only found in Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles and Orkney, areas which are home to flower-rich grassy plains known as machair, and abundant in red clover, the bee’s favoured food plant.
The species is a victim of changing habitats, increased industrialised forms of farming and reductions in hedgerows.
The Great Yellow is just one of many species of bumblebee found in the UK – and sadly, just one that is considered under threat.
But if the decline in bee populations has been occurring for some time, so too have the attempts to save it. Activists, dressed in their distinctive yellow and black costumes, have been a permanent fixture at political party conferences for the last few years and petitions have been launched urging action by governments to protect them.
Last month the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science published the results of a review into systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids, highlighting the risks to bees and other insects from modern farming processes.
The charity’s chief scientist, Dr David Gibbons, said: “For the sake of nature, farming has to find ways of producing food without putting the environment and its own future under unsustainable stress.”
The UK Bee Coalition formed in 2012, including groups like Buglife, Friends of the Earth and RSPB, is trying to raise awareness of the threats bees and other pollinators face to government, industry and the public.
The long-term decline has been blamed on changes in agriculture. The flower-rich meadows on which bees depend have been reducing – with 98 per cent across the UK disappearing over the year.
Anthony McCluskey, interim outreach manager at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, said: “Farming has changed to being more intensive, in the past you would have had traditional methods which still allowed the wild flowers to bloom, now the application of fertilisers and cutting the grass many times a year means they just don’t have a chance to bloom anymore.”
Insect pollinators are estimated to be worth more than £500m to the UK economy, with the soft-fruit industry in areas like Perthshire and Angus being particularly dependent, but McCluskey added: “All of our natural ecosystems usually have wild plants at their basis; bees help them to exist by pollinating them and helping them to reproduce.”
It means there is a vicious circle where a decline in food source means fewer bees, which in turn means less pollinators to help populations thrive. But while the population decline is generally accepted, it is not the whole story.
McCluskey said there was evidence now that the Tree Bumblebee, which was previously only found in Europe and made its way to the UK 11 years ago, is now in Scotland – with the first sighting in Lennoxtown last year.
This summer too has been a good one for bees. The warmer weather means that their numbers appear to be up – although crucially, this warm weather will have to continue until later this summer when new queens are being produced for populations to see a continued benefit.
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has been collecting data from a network of volunteers over the last three years carrying out ‘Bee Walks’ in an effort to gather a more detailed picture of the exact numbers of bees, as it is currently only based on individual sightings. It has also linked up with the University of Aberdeen to create a Bee Watch website and members of the public are able to send in pictures of bees they see which can then be identified.
The trust has a conservation officer based in the Highlands, who in particular works with farmers and landowners, talking about issues like hedgerow cutting and managing ditches, to ensure there are places for bees to feed.
Unlike honey bees, bumblebees are found entirely in the wild, and their nests contain between 50 and 400 insects, compared to the 50,000 to 60,000 honey bees in a hive.
But while honey bees have strength in numbers, bumblebees are hardier and play an even more important role in pollination. When cold or wet weather hits honey bees they stay inside, but bumblebees carry on.
There are many initiatives being run to boost populations. Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has put ‘bee hotels’ on many of its stores across the UK as well as encouraging people to make their own, using bamboo. Waitrose too has developed a phone app that helps shoppers buy bee-friendly plants
There have been many initiatives in Scotland launched to help protect bees.
Highlands and Islands MSP Dave Stewart adopted the Great Yellow as part of Scottish Environment Link’s species champion scheme, which encouraged all MSPs to take up the cause of iconic Scottish species. His work included opening an office in Thurso to publicise the issues affecting the bee.
He said: “This was a great campaign; it has educated individual members about the peculiarities of the different species.
“Without bumblebees you wouldn’t have your breakfast in the morning because it pollinates coffee, jam and much more.
“This has opened up my awareness about issues to do with climate change, farming methods, etc and what we don’t want is to have this become an extinct species.
“We’ve had successful reintroductions of species like the beaver in Argyll, which I’m very much in favour of – but let’s not lose the vulnerable species we currently have.”
The Woodland Trust has also been helping to ensure there is a wider source of nectar for bees, planting new woodland and particularly native trees like alders, hawthorns, hazel and rowans to give bees support in spring and summer.
They also offer community tree packs to schools and community groups supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery and sent a number of packs to the Borders Beekeeping Association, which has been planting around the area to support bees and get people involved in their conservation.
So is the decline reversible? McCluskey believes it is.
A project carried out at the RSPB’s Dungeness nature reserve in Kent has seen the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee, declared extinct in the UK in 2000. Hundreds of hectares of land were restored to be beneficial to bee populations and McCluskey said there were signs rarer species were returning to areas they had not been seen in in years.
Under the new Common Agricultural Policy, farmers have to undertake green measures to qualify for subsidies, but the trust is also aware they have to be able to maintain their farms and businesses in the process.
At the same time, individuals are encouraged to make their gardens and patios, however small, amenable to bees.
The list of plants which is good for bees, such as catmint, sweet pea, lavender, thyme, rosemary or marjoram is longer than the plants which are bad for bees.
“A lot of bedding plants are no good for bees at all, things like petunias, begonias and a lot of the pansies people buy are simply no good for bees but unfortunately, they’re the ones which sell most in garden centres.”
Unlike the Bumblebee which has 24 different species in the UK, there is just one species of honeybee across Europe, but its populations too are under threat.
Although some honey bees live in wild colonies, most are looked after by beekeepers. The threat to their populations is mainly due to diseases and mites, such as the Varroa mite.
In recent years there has been a developing trend of businesses demonstrating their green credentials by adopting their own bee hives – the most recent example being the Scottish Parliament.
Plan Bee, which has its head office in Motherwell, has a list of clients including Highland Spring, Royal Troon Golf Club and Glengoyne whisky who rent beehives, with its own bespoke honey in return.
Warren Bader, CEO of Plan Bee who started the company in 2011, said it was aimed at companies who wanted to put biodiversity and the natural environment “onto the balance sheet.”
“They want to show that they are proactively doing things for the environment,” he said.
“If a company changes lightbulbs, the customers don’t really know that they have done it, that there’s less of a CO2 footprint.
“We give them a really positive outward facing project.”
Plan Bee which has been recognised by the EU Commission as ‘exemplars of eco innovation’ and has won awards including PWC Private Business of the Year in Scotland, is also involved with councils and especially schools, rolling out education programmes on honey, bees and insect pollinators.
He said as well as supporting the curriculum and in the longer term attracting people into the farming and food production industries, it also helps “break down the fear factor” of bees and helps connect children to nature.
Bader, whose business card describes him as an ‘urban farmer’ said: “There is a huge disconnect, especially in urban schools with nature and the environment.
“We are trying to get people to reconnect with the importance of nature to themselves.