Bumblebees are mainly under threat because of changes to the countryside in the UK. Changes in agricultural techniques have meant that there are far fewer wildflowers in the landscape than there used to be, meaning that many of our bumblebee species are struggling to survive.
The dramatic decline in populations of most species, and the extinction of two species in the UK, show that something needs to be done.
Causes of bumblebee declines
When we think of the British countryside, we often think of rolling green fields with crops or livestock. However, it wasn’t always this way. Until relatively recently, the British landscape was much more colourful. The fields had many more wildflowers, and these supported a much greater diversity of wildlife.
However, technology and demand for increased food production meant that traditional agricultural practises were abandoned in favour of techniques which increased productivity but ultimately reduced the abundance of wildflowers in the countryside. Indeed, it has been estimated that we have lost 97% of our flower-rich grassland since the 1930s. As bees rely entirely upon flowers for food, it is unsurprising that their populations began to rapidly decline in most places.
The result of this has been that two species have become extinct in the UK since the start of the 20th century:
- Cullem’s bumblebee (Bombus cullumanus), was last recorded in 1941.
- The Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), was last recorded in 1988.
Both of these species are still found in Europe, but the British populations may have been specially adapted to our climate and environment. Sadly, several other bumblebee species are in trouble, and could become extinct in the UK within a short time. Two species in particular, the Great yellow bumblebee and the Shrill carder bee, are now only present in small numbers.
Impact of bumblebee declines
It is well-known that bumblebees are great pollinators, and therefore have a key role in producing much of the food that we eat. Through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to the UK economy and €14.2 billion per annum to the EU economy. If bumblebee and other insect pollinator declines continue, the extremely high cost of pollinating these plants by other means could significantly increase the cost of fruit and vegetables.
Bumblebees also help pollinate many wildflowers, allowing them to reproduce. Without this pollination many of these plants would not produce seeds, resulting in declines in wildflowers. As these plants are often the basis of complex food chains, it is easy to imagine how other wildlife such as other insects, birds and mammals would all suffer if bees disappeared.