A growing buzz

The great yellow bumblebee is one of the UK’s rarest bees. Once widespread, it has struggled to adapt to the dramatic changes that have taken place in the countryside over the last 70 years.

The sleepy bee

Great yellow bumblebees (or GYBBs as you quickly learn to abbreviate them…) are a bit unusual. Large, as their name suggests, they have a very short season, with workers not appearing until as late as July, and living only until September. During brief lives, they forage non-stop to support their small colonies and help produce the next generation of queens that will quickly head off to enter their long hibernation. These queens spend more of their lives asleep than awake.

But their love of a long snooze isn’t the problem. The issue is tracking down food when they wake up. Queens emerging in June often struggle to find their favourite flowers, particularly kidney vetch and red clover. That’s why they’re almost all now found near areas of machair, stretches of wildflower-rich coastal habitats in western and northern Scotland, with calcium-rich, sandy soils and winter grazing.

A surfing paradise

One of the biggest populations of GYBBs left in the UK can be found on the island of Tiree, but even here, they’ve been struggling. Tiree (pop. 650) lies west of Mull, jutting right out into the Atlantic, with nothing between its sandy beaches and the American coast. Famed for its waves, it’s a surfer’s paradise, and hosts the world’s longest-running wind-surfing competition each October.

The RSPB applied for funding to help the GYBBs on Tiree, but the plans were turned down. That’s quite common in conservation work, and a lack of such funding can often prevent projects getting off the ground altogether. But on this occasion, the people of Tiree moved in to help.

People power!

Janet Bowler lives on Tiree with her husband John, who looks after the RSPB’s reserve on the island. She recognised how important the GYBB project was and decided to use her own time to recruit a team of volunteers to help make it work. The plan was simple, but it needed some serious people-power.

First of all, islanders were encouraged to plant patches of bee-friendly flowers in their gardens, in the hope of creating a network of ‘super-food’ right throughout the season. Locally sourced seeds and plug plants, equipment, and instructions were all provided, and people quickly signed up. Eventually, 40 gardens, including Tiree School, Baugh Church and Tiree medical centre, plus three crofts, became involved. Twenty additional plots of native kidney vetch were also planted all around the island.

The second task was monitoring the bees. Volunteers were asked to look out for the well-hidden nests, and count both the large queens and the smaller drones and workers throughout the summer. Other species of bees were also recorded, along with the different habitats and flowers that they were seen on.

As well as Tiree residents, RSPB staff also volunteered to help, spending time on the island to help with the research and carry out more intensive surveys at key points in the year.

A big, buzzing success story!

The results of Janet’s project have been remarkable. In just four years, sightings of GYBBs on Tiree have jumped from an average of just 20 a year to a peak of 370 in the hot summer of 2018! Two nests were also located, another first for the island. Regular articles in the local island newsletter and websites have kept the profile of GYBBs (and other bumblebees) high, and a “Bumblebee Ball” was even held in 2018 to celebrate all the hard work.

The project has been able to source its own funding, from organisations like Grow Wild, and Tesco’s Bags for Life scheme, and later this year, a children’s story book about the bees is set to be published. Partially in Gaelic, it was created by local schoolchildren, illustrated by a local artist, and produced by a local-typesetter – a fantastic legacy for this project for the next generation.

Small actions make a huge difference

The people of Tiree worked together to save a rare bee from local extinction, and while most of us don’t have GYBBs on our doorstep, there are other bees out there we can help. That might mean planting wildflowers, leaving your lawnmower in the shed, or talking to a neighbour about not spraying pesticides. You could write to your council and ask them to stop cutting the verges, or let more areas go a little wild in your local park.

Many environmental problems, like climate change and biodiversity loss, can seem overwhelming and it’s easy to become despondent at government inaction, or terrible images, like the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. But we can all do something: even if it’s just one thing, even if it’s something local, or seemingly unimportant.

Think small or think big! Join a protest march, buy peanut butter that uses sustainable palm oil, recycle more, cycle more. There are hundreds of different things that we can all do to help build a better world.

Never think that you can’t make a difference.