To bee or not to bee: how the UAE is working to stop a key species dying out

Patrick Saunders is trying to save the rare long-horned bee from extinction, with the help of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

Global warming, industrial agriculture and habitat destruction are causing global bee populations to plummet, threatening ecosystems and delicate food webs that sustain humans and animals alike.

Billions of the insects that are critically important to biodiversity have been dying out with some, such as the rusty patched bumblebee, even becoming classified as endangered.

But in the fiercely independent English county of Cornwall, nestled deep down in the country’s southwest, a local ecologist, aided by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, is fighting to protect their habitat and ensure the survival of bees – and in particular, an especially rare species.

Patrick Saunders' consultancy, Kernow Ecology, was awarded a grant from the UAE conservation fund two years ago to help preserve and support the rare long-horned bee, also known as Eucera longicornis. Their population rapidly declined due to the loss of flower-rich grasslands in southern Britain – where the bee previously thrived.

The world should care about bees.

They pollinate everything we eat. If that system collapses, that's a huge problem

"They pollinate everything we eat. If that system collapses, that’s a huge problem," Mr Saunders said.

The money allowed Mr Saunders to properly devote efforts to surveying Cornwall to find their colonies and identify “practical” places where forage and flowers could be grown to help sustain them. It also allowed Mr Saunders time to “nag” farmers, councillors, officials and those who have the power to affect the conservation of bees into acting upon his research.

A survey he carried out two years ago found the population of Cornwall's long-horned bee had declined from 24 sites to just six. Many of those lost were in the years between 2000 and 2016. But with the support of Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund another site was discovered in January.

When The National visited Mr Saunders, 49, in the Cornish town of Looe at the weekend, a torrential downpour had just hit the region. Mr Saunders was surveying a bee forage on a hillside on a rugged stretch of coastline, picking pea plants that he would later plant for the bees to forage on when they bloom.

He said it was crucial that ‘fringe’ or rare insects like the long-horned bee remain at the forefront of conservation in the wake of climate and agricultural change.

“If you are left with just the common species, diversity is down and you’re left with just the common say seven or eight bumbles bees. There’s less ability in the landscape to withstand changes.”

He said intensive farming practices and overuse of pesticides were destroying the areas where bee species’ forage.

LOOE, CORNWALL, ENGLAND, August 16, 2019. Patrick "Paddy" Saunders picks pea plants that he would later plant for the bees to forage on when they bloom. Polly Stock for The National

Coastal erosion, aided by climate change, is one of the main threats to the rare long-horned bee, he said, which likes to burrow into soft cliff edges.

“Probably the worst thing for a lot of these creatures isn’t say the temperature going up by one degree; it’s that that we’re getting the wettest summer on record, then the driest summer on record.

“It just messes everything around and puts more pressure on and that probably forces the need for more flowers, better quality flowers,” said Mr Saunders, who moved to Cornwall from his home city of Liverpool in 1991.

When he applied for the grant from the UAE fund, Mr Saunders never expected to win it.

“It was quite out of the blue really, I wasn’t thinking I’d necessarily get accepted.”

Although the $3,000 (Dh11,000) funding was relatively small, it comes at a time when many organisations have been reluctant to fund the grassroots work he typically does, often preferring awareness campaigns.

The grant has allowed him to get out into the field, survey forage meadow sites, and pester key players who have the power to enable a good habitat for bees to forage in.

Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund typically supports smaller, more targeted conservation initiatives to draw attention to the importance of individual species, Razan Al Mubarak, managing director of the Fund, said in January.

“The work in Cornwall provides an excellent example of how a small grant can make a real difference,” she said.

Mr Saunders said the funding allowed him to present tangible evidence to farmers and policymakers.

“Actually, doing the survey and communicating that with landowners, that’s more difficult to get funding for. And that’s actually got more direct applicable benefits,” he said.

“It can support more grassroots, flexible action that can targeted to projects rather than big administrative, heavy projects that you end up having nothing but slightly pointless awareness raising.”

He said that, though it can be difficult to convince people to care about these sorts of species, it was important to remember that they are key to our existence.

“I think they enrich our lives. A healthy biodiversity leads to a healthy place for human beings to live in really.”