Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 19 October 2016 by Tim Ingram
'A Flagship for Restoring Habitat' - Dr. Nikki Gammans
'A Flagship for Restoring Habitat' - talk to the East Kent Group of the AGS, 14th October 2016.
In the final chapter of his magnum opus on 'Woodlands' ('The Recent Past and the Future'), Oliver Rackham revises his earlier, more pessimistric outlook on natural woodlands: 'Forty years ago there seemed to be no future in natural woodland. Who would have predicted that a goodly number of ancient woods would still be there in the twenty-first century, that plantation forestry would lose the economic base on which it was then justified, that the Woodland Trust would become one of the biggest woodland owners in the country, that the Forestry Commission would be leading the way in recovering replanted woods, and that the idea of new National Forests, presented as imitating natural woodland, would attract huge popular support? It is a fallacy to assume that the future will be no more than a continuation of the trends of the recent past.'
Would that the same was true of wild flower meadows which have declined by 90% or more over the same period. This was the underlying basis of Dr. Nikki Gammans' talk to our Kent Group of the AGS on 'Bumblebee Conservation', with especial emphasis on the re-introduction of the Short-haired Bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), widespread in Kent before a catastrophic decline in the 1960s and 70s, and last recorded at Dungeness in 1988.
She opened her talk with a summary of bees in the British Isles, the vast majority - some 230 species - solitary bees, which are efficient, effective and specialist pollinators with life-cycles linked to the plant species they forage on. Even though the Honeybee, of which there is one species in Europe (Apis mellifera) and 8-12 worldwide, catches most attention, it is misinformation that this is the best and most widespread bee pollinator.
Bumblebees take the middle ground - there are 27 British species, 21 of which are social (and 3 of these recorded but now extinct, including the Short-haired Bumblebee), and the remaining 6 'cuckoo' bees. Worldwide there are around 250 species, notably in cooler climates such as the Himalayas where they are at an advantage because of their dense coat of insulating hair. Unlike honeybees they don't show the 'dancing' behaviour linked to foraging for pollen and nectar and colonies are considerably smaller in numbers with between 50-400 workers. A third of the British species are threatened by loss of habitat.
The importance of Kent for Bumblebees lies in its relatively warm and dry climate and long coastline (and presumably also the history of its vegetation and agriculture), and 22 species are currently recorded in the county, including 6 of the rarist.
The diversity of wild flowers is what results in a diversity of pollinators. This has what has led Dungeness and the Romney Marsh area in particular being a key place for their study, and for the project that Nikki Gammans leads to re-introduce the Short-haired Bumblebee. Dungeness has a very rich flora with over 600 species of flowering plants, roughly a third of the whole number in the UK, a very remarkable fact in an area of just 12 square miles. The story behind 'A Charity Just for Bumblebees' is described in the book 'A Sting in the Tale', written by Dave Goulson, who founded the Trust in 2006, centred on the project to re-introduce this particular species, but of much wider ecological significance.
In Sweden, by contrast, the Short-haired Bumblebee is highly successful, the third most recorded out of a total of 36 species, and this is where Nikki and her colleagues have gone to capture new queens to introduce to Dungeness (with rigorous controls on quarantine and the logistics of the process). The project is described in detail in the final chapter of Dave Goulson's book, 'Return of the Queen'. At the time he wrote this it was not clear if breeding colonies had been established but in her talk to us Nikki showed a photograph of the first worker Short-haired Bumblebee in 2013, the first seen in over thirty years, and the project is now using DNA testing to follow the genetic progress of the re-introduction.
Couple with this, and just as essential, has been the drive to increase the extent of wildflower meadows in the region - and also in N. Kent with similar habitats - and Nikki Gammans has been working with, and cajoling, over 70 farmers and 25 land-owners to re-institute 1200 hectares of flower meadows to date. Other habitats such as the chalk banks alongside the High Speed Rail Link are also valuable, as is more informed management of road verges and waste ground. In an environment under sustained pressure from many demands this is a decided story of success which reflects well on all those involved (and volunteers have been vital for this success, including the simple but accurate recording of Bumblebees around the country - see: http://www.beewalk.org.uk).
For gardeners there is the satisfaction of creating mosaics of interconnecting alternative habitats, especially when planted with species particularly suited to pollinators such as Bumblebees. A good list spanning the year is given in this valuable book 'The Bumblebees of Kent', published by the Kent Field Club and written by Nikki Gammans and Geoff Allen. And much more information is available on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website: http://bumblebeeconservation.org.
We have certainly come away from her talk far better informed about this rather beautiful and charming genus of bees, and far more aware of the importance of this work to conserve them.