The shrill carder: once-common bumblebee heading for extinction | Bees

The shrill carder (Bombus sylvarum) is the bookmakers’ early favourite for invertebrate of the year. (I’m picturing a smooth, charming worm giving it the bookies’ patter and an embittered elderly grasshopper totting up the odds, disgruntled because his kind wasn’t nominated.)

Here flies one of our smallest bumblebees, a distinctive greyish-green and straw-hued species which is named after the high-pitched buzz it makes when airborne.

Bees, in particular bumblebees, are our most popular insects. We identify with their communal lifestyles, admire their industry, enjoy their association with sunny days and flowers and, increasingly, appreciate their importance as pollinators – for crops, for us, for all life on Earth.

Despite our love for the shrill carder, it is being pushed to extinction in Britain. Once common in the lowlands, it vanished from most places during the 20th century. It is now found in fragmented populations in pockets of Kent, Essex, Somerset, Wiltshire, and south and west Wales that include wetlands, dry grasslands, dunes and brownfield sites.

What these varied places have in common is that they are not intensively farmed. One of its most significant sites in the south-east is the brownfield nature reserve at Canvey Wick, another demonstration of the importance of brownfield sites and why they must not be the default choice for new development.

The shrill carder has declined for much the same reason as has much abundance and biodiversity in Britain: intensive farming practices that have destroyed 98% of flower-rich meadows in England and Wales over the past century.

Illustration with details of shrill carder bumblebee

The shrill carder comes late to the season, with its queens not usually emerging from hibernation until May. Research suggests the bees do not forage as far from the nest as many other species, so it needs flower-rich habitats and undisturbed nesting grounds. It nests in rough, tussocky grassland, within clumps of grass or just below ground.

Colonies are small, with only about 50 workers in a mature nest, and males and daughter queens emerge late, too, at the end of August or September. So the species needs late-flowering plants – plentiful supplies of nectar in September – to ensure the next generation goes into hibernation well fed.

Unfortunately, the intensification of farming has meant the traditional annual hay-cut in July – which enabled some plants to flower again in September – has been replaced with multiple cuts for silage throughout the growing season, reducing the supply of late flowers. And previously untidy, uncut field margins – another source of late nectar and nesting grounds – have been cultivated. It means there is no space for the shrill carder.

Saving this bumblebee is a British conservation priority. Jenny Jones, a Green party member in the Lords, even got a tattoo of the shrill carder to raise awareness of its plight, and there have been plenty of schemes over the past 15 years to boost flower-rich habitat in the areas where it survives.

We excel at saving species on the brink of extinction, but we are less good at changing the big picture. An increasing number of farmers are showing how to produce food and make space for nature, but most farms are still run on intensive lines and will continue to be as long as government rules ensure that is the best and easiest way to make a living.

So vote shrill carder, vote for change and vote for a future for our pollinating insects – and a future for us.

  • Welcome to the Guardian’s UK invertebrate of the year competition. Between 2 April and 12 April we are profiling the incredible invertebrates that live in and around the UK. At midnight on Friday 12 April, voting will open to decide which is our favourite invertebrate – for now – with the winner to be announced on Monday 15 April

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