The species was exported to New Zealand on the first refrigerated lamb boats in the late 19th century to pollinate red clover crops. Despite becoming extinct in the UK in 2000, the short-haired bumblebee has thrived on New Zealand’s South Island.
About 100 of the bees will be collected in New Zealand and a captive breeding plan established, with the aim of releasing them in their last-known habitat, Dungeness in Kent.
The bees will be flown over in cool boxes and will not be disturbed, as they will be in hibernation during transit.
Paul Christensen, Natural England’s acting chairman, says: ‘Bumblebees are suffering unprecedented international declines and drastic action is required to aid their recovery.
‘Bumblebees play a key role in maintaining food supplies—we rely on their ability to pollinate crops, and we have to do all we can to provide suitable habitat and to sustain the diversity of bee species.
‘This international rescue mission has two aims: to restore habitat in England, thereby giving existing bees a boost; and to bring the short-haired bumblebee home, where it can be protected.
‘The project hinges on the creation of healthy bumblebee habitat with the help of farmers in the South-East.’
Nikki Gammans, the scheme’s project officer, adds that the bumblebee pollinates about 80% of the UK’s most important crops. She says: ‘By creating the right habitat for these bumblebees, we’re recreating wildflower habitat that has been lost, which will be good for butterflies, water voles and nesting birds.’
Malcolm Ausden, senior reserves ecologist at the RSPB, says: “The loss of this bumblebee is a prime example of the pressures faced by the UK’s natural environment. It’s not often you get a chance to bring back a species which has been lost. With the short-haired bumblebee, the New Zealand population gives us an opportunity to do just that.’
The project calls for multiple releases over a few years, initially at Dungeness and then at selected sites in southern England, such as the Salisbury Plain. The project managers are aiming for a primary release date of 2010.
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