100 Viking queens to be trapped and transported to England

It’s the first of May and May is when they emerge from hibernation and are most abundant in Skåne in southern Sweden. But for some of them the freedom they are enjoying will be short lived.

Trappers from the UK have been given permission to capture 100 queens, refrigerate them to induce an artificial hibernation for travel and then transport them to the UK to “rape and pillage” the country-side and hopefully repopulate parts of Kent. A programme was started in 2009 to reintroduce them to the United Kingdom with queens from New Zealand. However this was not a success as many of the queens died during hibernation. DNA analysis of the New Zealand queens showed they lacked genetic diversity.

The queens of the short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, are the unfortunate creatures being hunted. It remains to be seen if the Viking queens fare any better than their Antipodean sisters.

Swedish Radio reports:

British scientists have been allowed to capture and bring home 100 Queens of the short-haired bumblebee, fairly common in Skåne but extinct in England. Bumblebees are needed to pollinate plants and vegetables, said Nikki Gammans from Natural England, who leads this unusual hunt, when she presented the project to a large press contingent  today outside Lund . When the British began this effort last year, it was not everybody who applauded, but the resistance was mainlydue to misunderstandings according to the provincial government in Skåne.

From Natural England:

Short-haired bumblebee (c) Nikki Gammans

Short-haired bumblebee (c) Nikki Gammans

After months of careful planning and negotiations, a team of experts led by Dr Nikki Gammans have embarked on a special mission to bring short-haired bumblebee queens back to the UK from the south of Sweden.

After a period of quarantine, It is hoped the bees can then be released on the RSPB Dungeness reserve in May 2012 and eventually colonise the surrounding area – see press release. …..

…. The Short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, was last seen at Dungeness in Kent in 1988 and was officially declared extinct in 2000 after many repeated searches. We believe this bee species along with the other threatened bumblebee species have suffered due to the loss of flower-rich habitats such as meadows.

Over the last 60 years, the UK has lost over 97% of its wild flower meadows due to intensifying agricultural practices. It is also likely that the removal of hedgerows from the UK may have reduced the available nesting and hibernation sites for short-haired bumblebees.

While I can see that such a project could be fascinating and challenging, the purpose of the exercise as described by Natural England is rather vague and fuzzy and well-meaning and not at all very convincing. Vague claims of being “critical” to our farming economy read like a sales pitch. These bumblebees failed to adapt / evolve to survive in the UK. Yet they are being  re-introduced without any actions to make the species more likely – genetically – to survive in its new environment. All that has been done is to create some protected habitat (flower corridors). It seems to me that the “conservation” movement is far too backward-looking and must focus more on helping threatened species to evolve genetically rather than trying to prevent the changes to habitat which are inevitable:

Bumblebees pollinate many important agricultural crops and are critical to our farming economy. More bumblebees = better crop pollination – there is evidence that the shortage of pollinators is reducing crop yields. By creating corridors of flower-rich habitat across Romney Marsh area, we have seen an increase and spread in the numbers of bumblebee species in Kent. Five threatened species, which include England’s rarest bumblebee the shrill carder bee, have all increased their geographic range in this area after decades of decline.

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