Britain is a nation of bumblebee lovers, it rapidly became clear yesterday after The Independent highlighted the insects' plight. The newly formed Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which this newspaper is backing, was flooded with inquiries from people wanting to join, and do whatever they could to help a vital group of species, which are now increasingly in trouble.
"We've had a constant flux of e-mails, loads of inquiries, in fact one every few minutes," said the BBCT's director, Professor Dave Goulson of the University of Stirling, who is Britain's leading academic bumblebee expert. "It's all very hectic. It would seem we have tapped into a well of concern that's out there for bumblebees."
Although bumblebees are extremely popular, many people have been surprised to learn how seriously some of them are in decline. Their shrinking numbers are largely due to the degradation of their traditional countryside habitats, such as hay meadows and chalk grassland, through intensive farming and the introduction of non-native plants into British gardens.
Already three of the 25 species originally found in the UK have gone extinct - the most recent being the short-haired bumblebee, last seen on the Kent coast in 1988 - and conservationists fear more are in imminent danger if action is not taken quickly.
Members of the trust will shortly receive its first newsletter and the first suggested piece of conservation action they can take part in - the search for the most beautiful of the British bumblebee family, the bilberry bumblebee (known in Scotland as the blaeberry bumblebee). This mountain and moorland species (it is the one used in the BBCT's logo) is found on Dartmoor and Exmoor in the south, and in the mountains of Wales, northern England and Scotland. Its real stronghold is the Cairngorms, where it is still quite common.
Like many of our bumblebees, it seems to be in decline, especially in the south, although it is not known why, or how much it has declined. So one of Professor Goulson's research students at Stirling, Jennifer Harrison-Cripps, is starting a PhD to try to find out more about the ecology of the species. She has toured museum collections compiling historical records of where the bilberry bumblebee used to occur. What she wants to do next is find out where the species survives today, and for this she needs the help of amateur enthusiasts.
Members of the trust who live in the hillier parts of Britain, or are likely to visit them on holiday in the summer, are being asked to keep an eye out for this bee and record sightings.
It is very distinctive as it is the only British bumblebee in which the majority of the abdomen is orange (some species have a red/orange tail, covering no more than a third of the abdomen).
Trust members are being asked to send records (date, grid reference, plus other observations such as what flower it was visiting) by post to the BBCT, or to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you prefer, recording sheets can be downloaded from the trust's website ( www.bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk). It is hoped that an accurate picture can be built up of how many populations of this species still survive, to help develop sensible conservation strategies.
Professor Goulson said yesterday he had also received inquiries about the trust from the France, the US and India. He said: "It's clear that people have an empathy for bumblebees. Perhaps it's because they're big and furry - rather mammal-like. Whatever the reason, there is a definite soft spot for bumblebees, and people are sad to hear that they are not doing so well."
* The paintings of different bumblebee species in The Independent yesterday were done by Tony Hopkins.