Harris crofter leads the way in providing a home for rare bumblebee

The borage crop at Northton. Photo: Robin Reid
The borage crop at Northton. Photo: Robin Reid

One of Scotland’s rarest insects, the great yellow bumblebee, is being given a helping hand by Harris crofter David Jones.

Mr Jones, who manages two crofts at Northton on the Isle of Harris, has been working with RSPB Scotland to enhance the habitat on his croft for wildlife.

Mr Jones, who also runs a bed and breakfast business, said: “We tell our guests that they are bound to see certain birds and flowers, depending on the season, if they take a short walk on to Northton machair.

“We also say there is a fair chance of seeing otters, eagles, porpoise and seals. Now we can add to this a near certainty of observing our rarest bumblebee during the summer.

“It is just so satisfying to ‘do something for wildlife’ and see an immediate return.”

Early in the year, the RSPB supplied a seed mix intended to provide cover and food for rare birds such as corncrake and twite.

After sowing the crop, Mr Jones and RSPB conservation officer Robin Reid waited with anticipation to see how the crop would fair.

Mr Reid said: “We planted borage, a bright blue and edible flower, which did particularly well giving the half-acre crop a distinctive hue, setting it apart from the surrounding machair.

“Borage produces large amounts of seed and was included in the mix to provide food for seed-eating birds. To our delight the borage also attracted large numbers of bees including the rare great yellow bumblebee.”

The great yellow bumblebee was once widespread throughout the UK but due to farmland intensification and the loss of wildflower meadows the species is now largely confined to areas of flower rich Machair in the Hebrides and Northern Isles.

Northton was known to be the Harris stronghold for the species but this elusive bee has often been difficult to locate even there.

Mr Reid continued: “This year between ten and twenty bees could be seen in the flower plot at any one time from late July to early September. On warm summer days the borage was buzzing with activity, attracting a host of other bee and insect species.

“It was a pleasant surprise to see how attractive the borage has been to great yellow bumblebees. This crop would have provided a welcome boost to the food naturally available to the bees on the machair.”

It is hoped that by rotating and extending this crop the borage will help secure the future of this isolated populations of Britain’s rarest bumblebee. As the plants begin to set seed they should attract in twite and reed buntings providing a valuable seed source over the winter.

Next spring it is hoped the taller vegetation will provide a home for corncrakes when they arrive back in the Western Isles having spent the winter in Africa.