One of the rarest bumblebees in the UK is now central to a new, interconnect campaign to improve its habitat, by growing more suitable bee plants and offering places to nest safely.

The silver lining from the lockdown cloud has been the apparent reconnection with nature and our gardens that has literally blossomed through the spring months. Any garden large or small became a precious commodity for mindful rest and relaxation. The birds and the bees punctuated the peace with welcome song and sound to lift our spirits. Even the children got involved.

Nature has had a bit of a respite in these challenging times. People who never had time to notice the birdsong, or the buzz of the bees stared to see how their gardens were a magnet for pollinators and wildlife of all shapes and sizes. A garden pond comes alive almost instantly and flowers attract all sorts of fabulous bees. Plant and they will come, and they do.

All of our native bees are under threat facing huge challenges. Some are so specialised, or isolated that their demise could be described as a slow motion car crash.

There are a fair few rare bee species, with some literally on the brink of extinction, but few more so than the Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus sylvarum). So it was exciting news to learn that this, one of our rarest bumblebees has been thrown an extraordinary lifeline. It is now the focus of a remarkable conservation strategy led by The Bumblebee Conservation Trust working with Buglife, in a coalition of thirty organisations and conservation experts.

This pretty little bee has a distinctive pale grey-yellow colouring with a black band of hair between its wings and reddish orange tail, and a charismatic high pitched buzz.

It now exists in just five isolated populations in England and Wales; the Thames Estuary, Somerset, the Gwent levels, Kenfig-Port Talbot and South Pembrokeshire. But now, this concerted and co-ordinated effort aims to halt the decline of this charismatic bumblebee species and create a landscape where Shrill carder bee populations can survive and thrive. But the great news is that by raising its profile and improving its environment this will have a huge positive knock-on effect for other pollinators and wildlife that share its habitat too.

With gardens now recognised as an important source of forage for all pollinators, gardeners have a vital role to play.

Lots of bee species with specialised needs could be found in and around your garden. That’s because our gardens are hugely varies and contain plants that hail from all over the world. And though our native insects need native plants, many can also feed from a variety of species from far distant shores.

The Shrill Carder bee is a late emerger with a long tongue, which means it needs a wide variety of longer tubed flowers that are around from mid to late spring right through to autumn. Our gardens are an oasis in the desert, which can feed small populations of bees. They become much more powerful when they are joined together, so that the bees can travel and feed further from their nests and mingle with others from nearby populations to increase their genetic diversity and reduce inbreeding. In an ideal world there would be plenty of connected habitat awash with wildflowers from May to September to cater for this pretty little bee and other bees too. Unfortunately there is little left and it’s a slow process to replace. Since the Second World War we have actually lost 97% of our wildflower meadows. That means that there is JUST 3% left. No wonder our bees and other pollinators are in trouble.

But it’s not just about food. Bees need a suitable place to nest and for the rare Shrill Carder bee that means tussocky grass and or old rodent holes. So habitat that offers both and good forage in late April and May is good for this species but also many other species of bees.

This enigmatic bumblebee is a perfect candidate for a Pokémon style treasure hunt by children and enthused adults too.

UPDATE 1: In July 2020 I wrote a piece about a campaign to save the Shrill Carder bee in the Daily Telegraph.

UPDATE 2: In late summer 2020, in between lockdowns, I went on a bee hunt with some volunteers for the BBCT and we found a male Shrill Carder Bee foraging on thistle flowers. It was so exciting to find it I was smiling from ear to ear for weeks!

Image: Claire Fidler/BBCT

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