Borchester Bees

Posted by Ivan Rendall on Saturday, 11 July 2014 in Blogging


19th July 2014



More than 80 conservationists, university researchers and professors will congregate in Ambridge next weekend. They will visit Starley’s Copse, until now been an obscure piece of ancient woodland, then repair to the village pub, The Bull (Upstairs), for a seminar on bumblebees.

The beautiful wood has been left virtually untouched by the ravages of time, and of the 20th and 21st centuries, but its very existence is now in serious doubt: it would simply disappear under tarmac and concrete if Borsetshire County Council chooses Route B for the new road round Borchester.

Local activists, academics and environmentalists have come together in common cause to have the copse certified as a Site of Exceptional Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Conservationists have confirmed that the copse could be the home of an extremely rare British bumblebee.

Environmental concern was aroused due to a chance observation by an Ambridge beekeeper, Mrs Jill Archer. Mrs Archer, 87, was walking near the copse when she saw a bumblebee foraging for pollen on wild flowers along the hedgerows. Heavy with pollen, instead of flying over a rape field, the bee took the long route, flying along a series of hedgerows to Starley’s Copse.

Just inside the tree line it landed on a south-facing sandstone bank and disappeared into a hole. Mrs Archer waited and about ten minutes later a bee came out of the hole. She was ready with her mobile phone and snapped the bee just as it was taking flight.

At home, she examined the photograph with a magnifying glass and compared the bee with others her grandson found online. “I became more and more convinced that it was a Bombus Sylvarum,” said Mrs Archer, “if so, it’s a bee that is dying out all over Britain,”

Mrs Archer continued, “Bombus Sylvarum is under pressure on all sides: from parasites, which have already decimated our bee population, to pesticides, such as imidacloprid and lanba cyhalothrinthe, which have been confirmed impair a bee’s ability to forage. They are also threatened by an invasion of European Tree Bumblebees, Bombus Hynnorum, which are now competing with sickly British bees by expanding aggressively and colonizing Britain’s countryside.”

Mrs Archer sent the photo to The Bumblebee Conservation Trust who in turn contacted researchers at Royal Holloway University, a centre of excellence in the study of the Britain’s bee crisis. The team there have nicknamed the Jill Archer bumblebee “Bombus Ambridgorum” until its species is fully established.

If it is a Sylvarum, it could provide a breakthrough in understanding why and how a small colony has survived healthy and intact. One possibility is that the Starley’s Copse bees may have had sufficient local alternatives to foraging in industrially farmed land, principally hedgerows and ancient pasture that has never been ploughed. It may also be that it has been so isolated in Ambridge for so long that it has thrived because of some kind of genetically inherited resistance to all three of the threats; we can compare them with sickly Sylvarums for any genetic divergence. Another line of scientific enquiry will be to see if the Eurobee has tried but failed to colonise the copse, repelled by our gallant Sylvarums.

One of Britain’s most prominent bee experts (contacted by the Borchester Echo but who wishes to remain anonymous) said: “This is exciting and remarkable news which could have national and international implications. We need a full, detailed, and fully funded, investigation of these bees, the copse, the locality, and the effect of pesticides, parasites and alien species on their health and strength. The parasites may be attracted to bees that have become weaker because they are unable to forage properly, or stand up to invasive species from Europe.”

He added: “We need to establish a long-term scientific programme to study and understand this particular colony. Flattening the copse under a road simply cannot happen. We, and others, will be asking DEFRA to make Starley’s Copse an SSSI. All farmers, and all human beings for that matter, have a vital interest in a thriving British bee population.”

Sources in the Open Spaces and Environmental Departments of BCC suggest that if SSSI status were granted, it could take 5-10 years to do the science, and depending on the outcome it could mean protection of the site in perpetuity.

Either way, it would make Route B impossible.

Political support against the road has been sought at all levels. Such contacts are not public at the moment but sources have confirmed that some very prominent and outspoken names, from the entertainment and political worlds, and even some with royal connections, have been linked to the seminar next week at The Bull (Upstairs).

Meanwhile, Jill Archer, a quietly determined woman who has lived in the village all her working life, in more philosophical: “Progress in farming is all very well and good, but farmers can’t feed the world without the help of bees.”

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