Tiree bumblebee buzz

The great yellow bumblebee is creating quite a buzz on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. A four year project to monitor its population and habitat, and create new foraging habitat, has been embraced by the island’s residents and visitors. Janet Bowler, project manager for Hebridean Flower Power and Tiree’s Great Yellow Bumblebee Project, is our guest blogger today and reveals a tale of determination, community spirit and success.

GYBB queen - John Bowler

Great Yellow Bumblebee Queen by John Bowler

The great yellow bumblebee (GYBB) Bombus distinguendus is one of the UK’s rarest bumblebees. Its distribution has declined by 80% in the last century. Where once it lived throughout the UK and Ireland, it is now restricted to the north coast of Scotland, some northern and western Scottish islands, and the west coast of Ireland. The cause of its decline is most likely due to agricultural intensification and the subsequent loss of clover-rich flower meadows. Tiree’s expanses of machair, which includes a variety of clover and clover-like flowers, make an important refuge for this enigmatic bee, but even here, the species appears to be struggling. It is thought that the availability of its favoured flowers at critical times of the year may be limiting breeding success, and so in late 2016, RSPB Scotland invited a local ecologist to carry out a short project to create additional early forage for the species.

creating a mini-machair at Baugh Church

Creating a ‘mini-machair’ at Baugh Church

We soon realised that the work had huge potential for community involvement, and so in 2017 we launched ‘Tiree’s great yellow bumblebee project’. Funding awarded by the Tiree Community Windfall Fund, Grow Wild and Tesco Bags of Help enabled members of the community to learn how to conduct bumblebee surveys, identify local wildflowers, sow a bespoke mix of seeds of flower species known to be favoured by GYBBs, buy propagation equipment and gardening tools, and construct signs for participating gardens. RSPB Scotland continued to be involved by providing ecological advice and survey support.

Tiree homes are scattered throughout the island, usually within bee’s-reach of GYBB nesting and hibernating habitat, making their gardens ideal for creating a ‘mini-machair’ network. Gardens at the school, medical practice, church and old folks’ home also joined the network, along with patches of croft land. In total, around 40 areas were planted up with GYBB ‘super-food’.

GYBB worker - Paul Wood

Great Yellow Bumblebee worker by Paul Wood

Bumblebee surveys conducted from mid-May to the end of September revealed some astonishing results. We recorded 105 GYBB over the summer of 2017, and a whacking great 370 in 2018. Until then we hadn’t realised just how important Tiree was for the species. Eagle-eyed bee enthusiasts also discovered two active nests – a very rare find for the island. A motion-sensitive trail camera, borrowed from the Tiree Ranger Service, allowed us to record the comings and goings at one of the nests – probably the first time this has been done anywhere.

making garden signs in tech class

Making garden signs to raise awareness

A busy and successful couple of years was rounded off with two celebrations: a ‘bumblebee dance’ in the community hall for all participants and supporters, and an invitation to the Nature of Scotland Awards in Edinburgh, where the project received ‘Highly Commended’ recognition in the Community Initiative category.

Over the next two years we will review the success of the ‘mini-machairs’, continue to conduct bumblebee surveys and grow more GYBB ‘super-food’. We also plan to enable older children to run their own project: producing an illustrated children’s story book in Gaelic and English about the plight of the great yellow bumblebee.

garden signs