Darwin, environmental tinkering and a tale of two bees

Tree bee (Bombus hypnorum) showing unique colour pattern

We have a new page in our ‘Darwin and Life Science’ section for World Environment Day on 5 June.  Inspired by the sight of a bee that only arrived in the UK in the last ten years, and by the recent attempts to reintroduce another that had gone extinct here, it looks at Darwin’s fascinating work on bees and at our changing attitudes to environmental impact.


The tree bee (Bombus hypnorum) was first reported in Wiltshire in 2001 and is now spreading North and West, apparently without causing any damage.  The short-haired bee (Bombus subterraneus) was taken to New Zealand in Victorian times, was declared extinct in the UK in 2000, but was reintroduced here last month using specimens from Sweden – ones from New Zealand didn’t survive the journey and the population there suffers from serious inbreeding.


Darwin was fascinated by bees; he devised experiments to study the comb-building technique of honey bees, and on one occasion stationed his children round his property as markers to help him track the flight paths of bumblebees.


Today, the sight of any new species leads to worry about its environmental impact, a very different attitude from that of most Victorians, for whom the large-scale introduction of any useful – or even just attractive – animal or plant was seen as positive or at least unproblematic. It was Darwinian evolution theory that fundamentally changed the way we understand the environment and even led to the coining of the word ‘ecology’.


In On the Origin of Species, Darwin put forward his ‘entangled bank’ idea of nature: an unsettling picture of an ever-changing, dynamic world in which species were ephemeral, and habitats, once destroyed, could not easily be recreated. One correspondent who understood the full implications of Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’ was John Lubbock.  Lubbock seems very much ahead of his time when, in a letter to Darwin in 1867, he comments on Edward Wilson’s plan to introduce humble-bees (as bumblebees were then more commonly known) to Australia: ‘As to the Humble Bees they would if once landed in Australia probably destroy some native insect & I wish Mr. Wilson would leave the Australian fauna alone.’ A sentiment many Australians today would probably agree with.


It’s not so easy to turn back the clock in the natural world, but we hope that the short-haired bumble bee does as well in the next ten years as the tree bee has done in the last ten.

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