THE most northern town on the Scottish mainland is to be rebranded as a haven for one of the rarest bumblebees in a bid to save the species from vanishing from the UK.
The great yellow bumblebee faces being wiped out in Britain as populations have shown an 80 per cent decline in recent years. Nowadays the endangered bee is found only in parts of Caithness and Sutherland and the islands of Orkney, Coll, Tiree and the Outer Hebrides.
Now conservationists have come up with a new plan to help ensure its survival and will see Thurso styled as the country’s first great yellow bumblebee town.
The aim of Thurso: Gateway to the Great Yellow, run by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, is to create a sense of community ownership and encourage conservation of the distinctive fluffy bee, which is easily recognised by its yellow body and band of black hair between its wings.
Loss of habitat is believed to be responsible for its disappearance, caused by changes in land use and spreading urbanisation.
As part of the project, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) is calling for communities throughout Caithness to help create and manage habitats that will encourage existing colonies to thrive.
The scheme has already attracted support from Highlands and Islands MSP David Stewart and Highland councillor Roger Saxon, who have signed up as species champions for the nationally scarce bee.
Householders are being asked to play their part by planting bee-friendly flowers in their gardens, which have become increasingly important for bumblebees as changing agricultural practices drive them from their traditional habitats.
Great yellow bumblebees come out of hibernation later than many other species and need a continuous supply of food from May to October.
“The great yellow is one of our rarest bumblebees but will often visit flowers to forage in far northern and island gardens,” said Katy Malone, BBCT conservation officer for Scotland.
“Plants therefore need be totally hardy as well as rich in late-source nectar and pollen - plants like Sedum spectabile, crocosmia and buddleia are really valuable and provide a welcome burst of colour at a time when most other flowers have begun to die.”
Other popular plants for the long-tongued bee are red clover, vetches and knapweed as well as catmint, honeysuckle and foxgloves.
Herb gardens with thyme, marjoram and lavender also attract the bees, as do alliums and borage.
Local councils can also make a difference, according to the trust, since factors such as the cutting regime for grass verges and parkland can have a huge impact on bumblebee populations.
“In the far north and west, the great yellow still thrives on coastal sites which retain clover-rich machair habitat,” said Ms Malone.
“The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is supporting community groups and other landowners such as farmers and crofters who want to retain these flower-rich environments.
“Many people think that by leaving a patch of ground completely undisturbed, wildflowers will thrive. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
“The best wildflower areas are the ones that are managed by cutting grass in the early spring or late autumn and removing the cut grass so that wildflowers can come through the next year. It’s similar to how a traditional hay field would have been managed 50 years ago.”
The conservationists also hope garden centres will promote plants that are beneficial to bumblebees over popular bedding plants such as begonias and pansies, which offer little or no pollen and nectar.
Mr Stewart became an advocate for the great yellow bumblebee in the Scottish Parliament after signing up to the Wildlife Proclamation laid out by Scottish Environment Link, the forum for voluntary green groups.
“Each MSP who signed the proclamation took on a role as a species champion and I was fortunate to receive the great yellow bumblebee, which is pertinent to the region I represent of the Highlands and Islands,” he said.
“The decline in population has been due to the loss of the natural habitat of the great yellow, which is flower-rich meadows and machair. Caithness provides the perfect Gateway to the Great Yellow as the biodiversity of the area and abundance of wildflowers make it the perfect location for the project.”
He said he was delighted to support the move to brand Thurso as the first great yellow bumblebee town.
He added: “The wildlife in the Highlands and Caithness is known and respected the world over and this brings us huge benefits from tourism each year.
“I am delighted to do all I can to encourage the protection and restoration of our local habitats as well as helping to foster economically beneficial projects that support jobs and tourism across the north.”
BBCT is holding a public consultation on the plans from Monday (19/05) at a pop-up shop in the town.