Northern star

They are busy folk at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Their mission may sound deceptively simple –  to increase the number and distribution of bumblebees – but they are astute enough to know that  you need many tools and heaps of energy to deliver such a critical ambition.

Their partnership with Scottish and Southern Energy Networks in the northern reaches of Scotland is a point in case. When the energy company looked, in 2017, to improve the area around their Thurso South substation for wildlife they sensibly sought out the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The result was a highly productive partnership which resulted in a sizeable and well-thought out meadow.

That meadow was one step along the route to helping bumblebees in the north of Scotland. It was a well-designed project. A tailored pollinator seed mix, in harmony with the local conditions, was put to good use and surveys in 2018 and 2019 confirmed that insects were quickly using the site. In 2020 came the great news that the Great Yellow bumblebee had been spotted using the site.

The first Great Yellow bumblebee recorded at Thurso south substation meadow, August 2020.
Image (C) Katy Malone, BBCT.

The Great Yellow bumblebee was once widespread throughout the United Kingdom, but is now only found in a handful of areas, all of them here in Scotland –  Caithness, north-west Sutherland, the Hebrides and Orkney.  It is one of our rarest bumblebees, needing extensive meadows and particular types of habitats, such as machair, to survive from year-to-year. 

Twelve months on from that individual 2020 sighting the regular visits of a local volunteer established conclusively good numbers of Great Yellows using the site. And there was yet more good news when the Bumblebee Conservation Trust staff visiting in August 2021, during a research trip, were rewarded with a view of more than one queen bumblebees making the most of the Thurso resource. It’s not a quantum leap from there to surmise that the species is probably nesting on the site.

The success in Thurso helps illustrate progress and makes it easier to engage with the general public and landowners in a bid to inform future conservation of this species.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust provides tailored advice to farms and landholdings to support beneficial management of sites for Great Yellow bumblebee through the Saving the Great Yellow Bumblebee project which as been running since 2019. New projects are always in the pipeline to carry forward this work and expand it even further. They provide follow-up support to farmers, landowners and agents across high priority Great Yellow areas and, where appropriate, advice on management options funded by SRDP-AECS (Scottish Rural Development Programme, Agri-Environment Climate Scheme). This advice is highly tailored to each site, ranging from suggesting suitable voluntary measures to adopt, through to helping with written letters of endorsement.

One element has been to employ survey consultants to gather data on forage and conduct bee surveys along the north coast of Sutherland, and the Outer Hebrides, in June through to early September. The intention is that these reports will highlight suitable areas to target more intensive surveys for Great Yellow bumblebees in the areas, record the quality of forage across the landscape, and suggests where a change in management might help encourage better habitats for this rare bumblebee. Another strand is looking at the genetic variability in Great Yellow populations to find whether genetic relatedness is increasing – this would affect the long term viability of these remote populations and help the Bumblebee Conservation Trust work out new approaches to conservation.

Conservation Officer (Scotland) Katy Malone is delighted to see these different threads coming together in a coherent drive to address the challenges facing the Great Yellow bumblebee. “We’ve made great steps forward in helping this iconic species thrive in new areas, but there is still so much work to do. Only with the help of our supporters, members and volunteers, and in partnership with business and conservation organisations, can we sustain this effort and see bumblebees thriving again across our landscapes. We need to deliver across entire landscapes from the Outer Hebrides right up to Orkney. I’m really excited to be a part of the development of new projects which will help us establish even more sustainable solutions.”

Trust staff finding Great yellow bumblebees at SSE Thurso south substation in 2021 during a research trip. Image (C) Katy Malone, BBCT.

Founded in 2006 and with almost 8,000 members, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a level of specialist knowledge, active nationwide groups and targeted projects that makes them a key partner in successfully delivering the Pollinator Strategy for Scotland. 

They work on a range of projects simultaneously, ranging from research and monitoring, through public engagement and information services, to leading effective campaigns. If you want to find out more then settle down in front of their website. It’s a fantastic resource to not only gain in insight into their projects, but find all sorts of practical and easy to follow advice on how to help bumblebees. Their ‘Bee Kind’ section is just one example featuring planting recommendations to enable us all to do our bit to help bumblebees and other pollinators.  

There is no doubting the Bumblebee Conservation Trust are busy, but equally there is no doubting their relentless focus in the battle to tackle the many challenges facing our native bumblebees. What’s going on in the north of Scotland is just one fine example.

Find out more:

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website

Bumblebee Conservation Trust 2021 cash appeal

Bumblebee Conservation Trust gift membership