Homecoming buzz: Short-haired bees return to UK

They've been away, but now they are — hopefully — buzzing back to their rightful place in the bucolic British countryside.

Around 50 short-haired bees were released into an English nature reserve Monday, some two decades after they were wiped out from most of rural Britain. Ecologists hope that with the support of farmers who have agreed to grow flowers and plants that help bees flourish they will zip across the country again.

"Our farmland always used to have wild flower borders. We are just asking farmers to go back to the way things were and the response has been overwhelmingly positive," Nikki Gammans, who is leading the ambitious project, told The Associated Press.

The population of short-haired bees — scientific name Bombus subterraneus — has declined dramatically across most of Europe the last two decades as their habitat was destroyed. The bees were declared extinct in Britain 12 years ago.

But they survived in Skane, southern Sweden and three years ago Natural England, a conservation program that advises the UK government, launched a program to bring the bees back into the wild along with the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and ecology research group Hymettus.

Natural England gave farmers grants to plant flower-rich hay meadows on their land and border their fields with wildflowers to attract bees. Once the wildflowers were in place, Gammans collected nearly a hundred bees from Sweden, and held them in quarantine while screening them for parasites.

The 51 that made it through the screening process were released into the wild Monday in a nature reserve in Dungeness, Kent in southeast England, filled with wild flowers such as red clover, white dead nettle, yellow flag and tufted vetches.

"There are corridors of wild flowers all over the country so we really hope the bees will be able to spread out and thrive in the English countryside again," Gammans said.

Britain has 250 species of bees, but numbers are falling fast, as they appear to be worldwide.

A U.N. report last year said the world's bee population is likely to continue declining unless habitats are protected. Pesticides, wet weather and a parasite called the varroa mite also are hitting numbers. The U.N. estimates that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world's food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees, and therefore the declining bee population could soon hit food supplies.

In Britain, both honey bees and wild bees, like the short-haired bee, are under threat.

"The problem of vanishing bees is a complex one and there is no single solution, but the planting of wildflowers is enormously helpful," said Tim Lovett, a former president of British Bee Keepers Association. "Other people can help too, by planting bee friendly plants like lavender in their garden, and local authorities can plant more trees. We all have to do something because we are all in it together.