Tiny bee stages comeback on Scottish island

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Britain's most solitary bee has been found thriving on the remote Western Isles.

Once a relatively common sight throughout the higher-altitude agricultural lands of the UK, the increasingly rare Colletes floralis has been forced to the outer edges of the British Isles by modern farming practices, changing land management and climate change.

Now several of the species, better known as the northern mining bee, have been found for the first time on the island of Islay, famed for its whisky distilleries and linksland golf course.

The bee, smaller than a 5p piece, is mainly black but has tawny red hairs covering the top of the thorax and paler hairs on the face with narrow white bands of dense white hairs on the abdomen. It is among a small group of boreo-alpine species of bee found in the UK.

A solitary insect which nests on its own without a colony of workers, the bee gets its colloquial name from its habit of burrowing into the ground to lay its eggs in nests up to almost a foot long. It is believed the bees, which forage for nectar from a wide range of flowers and prefer light, sandy soil for their nests, have managed to survive and thrive on Islay because of the extensive areas of herb-rich grasslands around the coastline.

"We've suspected for a while now that Colletes bees may be present on Islay since there is suitable habitat," said Janet Hunter, an ecologist brought in by RSPB Scotland to survey the island. "The bees are at six sites."

RSPB Scotland has been working with farmers and land-owners to sensitively manage the habitats. It is likely the bees have survived on Islay because of such positive land management. Andy Schofield, warden at the RSPB Smuall reserve on Islay, said: "With one of the colonies just yards from our nature reserve, we will be making efforts to ensure the habitat is perfect for encouraging the bees."

The small Scottish population of the bees is limited to a few Inner Hebridean islands, including Coll and Tiree where the bees make colonies within coastal dune and machair, Gaelic for the fertile and flower-filled plains.

Although Colletes floralis is found in southern Norway, Sweden and Finland, many populations are now scarce. The only UK sites left are in Northern Ireland, Cumbria and the Hebrides.

The bee is most active at this time of year, between mid-June to late August, as it feeds off the pollen of a variety of plants, although it prefers those in the parsley family (Apiaceae). The females, slightly larger and with glossier, darker and longer abdomens, burrow into the ground and seal their nests with soil. They produce a secretion from glands in their mouths and coat the inside of the burrow then lay their eggs in sealed cells.

Each cell contains a food reserve comprised of regurgitated nectar and pollen to feed the larvae and support the pupa through the winter while the bee develops. In June, the male bees emerge first and fly around the nests waiting for the females to emerge, and for the lifecycle to begin again.

Help to launch Britain's first bee reserve

Plans for a bee conservation reserve in the wilds of western Scotland have been drawn up by environmentalists trying to save Britain's rarest species of bumblebee.

Just weeks after The Independent highlighted the work of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BCT) the organisation has launched a nationwide appeal to raise funds for its first nature reserve specially created for bees.

In an attempt to retain a stronghold for two of the country's most endangered bees - the great yellow bumblebee and the moss carder bee - the BCT is appealing for £100,000 to buy around 30 acres of abandoned crofting land in the Outer Hebrides.

"Thanks to the incredible support that we have received since the launch of the trust we are in a position to consider buying and managing our first nature reserve," said a spokesman for the BCT.

"Our first priority is to protect Britain's rarest bumblebees in their last remaining stronghold in the Outer Hebrides. "The habitat here is held in a fragile balance, which is only maintained by the use of traditional farming methods."

The trust hopes to be able to raise enough money to turn between 20 and 30 acres of abandoned land in the west of Scotland into a refuge for the insects, which are being slowly driven to extinction by changing farming practices.

The great yellow bumblebee was once widespread across Britain but is just about hanging on in the Hebrides and at other scattered sites on the fringes of Scotland. Similarly, the rare moss carder bumblebee also thrives in the islands but is now very rare on the UK mainland.

"We are going to need a lot of help to raise the funds necessary to buy and manage our first nature reserve," said Ben Darvill of the BCT.

Donations can be sent to the BCT Reserve Appeal, School of Biological Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, or online at:

www.bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk/reserve _appeal.htm.