Sand and marram grass stretch as far as the eye can see. This 21-square-mile stretch of open shingle at Dungeness, Kent, has been dubbed Britain’s only desert. The bleak landscape attracts television crews looking for other-worldly film sets, as well as walkers and tourists drawn by the solitude.
Here amongst this unearthly scene, the most amazing ecological experiment has been playing out: the very first reintroduction of a bumblebee declared extinct in Britain since the turn of the century.
The Short-Haired Bumblebee Project began with an ambitious attempt to capture queen short-haired bumblebees in New Zealand, where they still do well, and export them to the UK.
It failed: genetic analysis showed high levels of inbreeding. Undeterred, the team – made up of various universities, bumblebee conservation outfits, quangos and charities – switched its focus to Sweden as a source of individuals for this ground-breaking reintroduction project.
More than a decade later and their efforts have proved a success, with three species of rare bumblebees having increased in numbers around Dungeness.
The scale of the experiment has also expanded considerably, with an amazing community of volunteers and nearly 100 farmers and landowners taking part. The changes have also benefited a wide range of other species, from mammals to flowers, as well as other insects and birds.
The project has also touched the lives of over 30,000 people through school visits, events, talks and summer walks.
Although the bees themselves are small and simple to handle, their reintroduction has not been easy. For starters, the first thing they do when released is fly straight over the horizon.
A queen bee can fly miles. In half an hour, she could be eight miles away, and in a few days, anywhere, which is what made it extremely difficult to keep track of the insects. Most of those released, after months of meticulous planning and care to guarantee their health, simply disappeared without trace.
All of which goes to show that it’s hard to bring creatures back from extinction; far better to make sure they don’t go there in the first place.
One hundred years ago, short-haired bumblebees were common in south and east England, but numbers crashed in the later 20th century.
As farming became more intensive, so the wildflowers and rich meadows that had supported bees were swept away, and with them went the insects themselves.
Britons love bees – the insects having been identified as the number one endangered species people in Britain would save.
And goodness, do they need our help. In the UK, three bumblebee species are now extinct and several more species have become very rare, disappearing from most of Britain.
Why bees are in trouble
When it comes to the chief culprit for the decline in bee populations, the scientific evidence is clear: pesticides.
A major study by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides – a group of global, independent scientists affiliated with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – found that the systemic use of pesticides was a big reason behind the decline of bees.
The study looked at the use of these and concluded that pesticide use causes ‘significant damage’ to a wide range of wildlife like butterflies, birds and earthworms, and is a ‘key factor’ in the decline of bees.
Historically, at least part of the blame for the demise of Britain’s wild bees can be laid at the door of one man – Adolf Hitler. The Second World War was the death-knell for Britain’s flower-covered meadows. The celebrated drive for self-sufficiency – ‘Dig for Victory’ – saw millions of hectares of flower-rich grasslands, hay meadows, chalk downland and so on either ploughed up or given over to fast-growing grass for intensive grazing.
The catastrophic transformation of our countryside has continued through years of agricultural intensification and its associated use of herbicides which leaves very little room for anything but the crop.
Bees have become emblems of the health of our countryside.
Happily, they remain a common sight in most gardens, despite the declines. In fact, gardens are something of a refuge. Tellingly, researchers have found that there are now more bees of more different varieties in Britain’s cities than in the countryside.
While farms often plant swathes of one crop, gardens and allotments provide a mixed source of flowers all year round, creating a wonderful habitat for insects.
Bees are seen as ambassadors for the ecosystem, and symbolise the high stakes involved.
A third of what we eat relies on these insects for pollination, yet numbers have almost halved in the past 25 years in England. Researchers at the University of Reading believe that Britain has less than a quarter of the bees needed for the proper pollination of its crops, while Europe has only two-thirds.
So what would a world without bees mean? – well, there would be no tomatoes, no chilli peppers, no courgettes, no blueberries, no raspberries, no runner-beans, no cucumbers – the list goes on. Even a tin of baked beans contains beans pollinated by bees in a sauce pollinated by bees too.
All of which makes bees the perfect ambassador for the natural world; as with so much of nature, without bees, our own lives would be seriously diminished.
Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf