In the long, hot summer of 1995, a young actress I know set off on an adventure from Sydney to London to study at one of the city’s famous drama schools and spend the warm evenings picnicking with other bohemian types on the banks of the Thames. At the end of one particularly mellow August day, she wrote me a letter describing the loveliness of it all, in particular the fat, lazy bumblebees that had caught her eye as they meandered from flower to flower.
Perhaps the romance of that letter explains why my own eye was captured by a swarm of scientific reports on bumblebees from English researchers in recent weeks.
The first I saw was a story warning that native bumblebee species - of which there are 25 - are under threat from Mediterranean varieties brought in to pollinate tomatoes in commercial glasshouses.
In late June, Tom Ings from Queen Mary, University of London, and colleagues published their work online in the Journal of Applied Ecology. They found that the imported species collected more nectar, produced more queens and built bigger colonies than their native cousins. Apparently, imported varieties have already escaped and bred in Chile and Japan.
As if British bumbles didn’t have enough to worry about. Three species have become extinct in recent decades and another nine are thought to be in serious decline.
Ecologists think the main culprit is the loss of their natural habitat, as farming methods have changed and hay meadows, rough grasslands and hedgerows have vanished. The problem has become so worrisome that a group of scientists has formed a dedicated conservation trust to address the bumblebee’s plight.
Professor David Goulson of the University of Stirling and other concerned bee researchers hope that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust will help foster a better understanding of the furry buzzers and prevent further declines.
As they point out on their website, bumblebees play a crucial role in pollinating wild species of plant and crops. Their disappearance could trigger sweeping changes to the countryside, which in turn could have further detrimental effects on bee species. In fact, Goulson and co-founder Ben Darvill said last month that they wanted to create a bumblebee reserve in the Outer Hebrides - one of the few places in the UK where some endangered species of the insect survive.
They are also using a specially trained sniffer dog by the name of Quinn to help find hives, with the aim of learning where bees like to nest. It seems that this is one of many mysteries still surrounding the humble bumblebee. Another example was highlighted in July, when scientists from Newcastle University showed that bumblebees’ homing instinct allows them to find their way back to the nest from up to eight miles away.
Steph O’Connor, a biology graduate, and insect specialists Mark O’Neill and Gordon Port, have been taking bees from a nest in a university wall, driving them to famous landmarks in north-east England, and waiting to see if they can find their way back.
The study sounds like fun. Each bee (from the Bombus terrestris species) is caught by O’Connor in a big net and taken to the lab, where it is slowed down by cooling, tethered gently to a board and adorned with a tiny number, which is glued to its back. The researchers then pop the sluggish bees into tubes and jump in the car. At the destination - including the Angel of the North, three miles from campus; the Tyne Bridge and Manors Metro station, one mile away; or a garden centre some eight miles distant - they are let loose.
The results are just starting to come in, but so far the scientists have found that it is only worker bees that make their way back. The record of eight miles far exceeds the expected maximum range.
But the main aim is not to measure how far the bees forage, Port explained to me. “What we’re trying to find out is if there are particular landscapes that help them navigate.” Perhaps they travel best in an east-west direction, for instance, or maybe there are certain types of structure that help them find their way.
This knowledge may ultimately help provide conservation strategies to adapt landscapes to create ideal habitats for bees in hedgerows or elsewhere. At the moment, scientists think that vision is an important factor in bumblebee navigation, helping them fly in straight lines using landmarks as clues. At very close range they use smell to find their way around.
Some people contend that science strips mystery and romance from the natural world by portraying it mechanistically. In my experience, the opposite is true - and bumblebee research is a fine illustration. The more science tells us about these critters, the more remarkable they seem.
Not that they need any help in the popularity stakes - Steph O’Connor calls them aerial teddy bears, apparently. “They’re a very charismatic species,” Port says. “You can’t help but like them - as long as you treat them nicely and they don’t sting you.”
And you won’t be surprised to hear that that actress friend of mine - long since my wife - agrees, too.