Toby is the latest weapon in an effort to try to understand what is happening to Britain’s bumblebees. He is the world’s first bee-sniffing dog, trained by the army, and based at Stirling University, where researchers have a £112,000 grant to study the bees’ decline.
The trouble with bumblebees is that their nests are smaller than a honeybee hive and are often hidden underground. As few as 50 bees can live in one nest. One of the bees’ main predators is the badger, and it occurred to the Stirling team that if badgers could sniff out bee nests, then so could a dog. They approached the army and provided the funds to train Toby.
“If we are going to conserve them, we need to know more about them, where they live, what causes the nests to die,” says Professor Dave Goulson. It is absolutely crucial work, says Goulson. “Bumblebees are very important to the environment as pollinators of crops and flowers, but sadly they are struggling to survive in the modern world of habitat loss, pesticides and intensive agriculture,” he said.
“Further decline in bumblebees could result in a downward cycle of poorer harvests and sweeping changes to the countryside, as wild flowers set less seed and disappear, which, in turn, could have catastrophic effects for other wildlife.” Like honeybees, the British bumblebee is under threat. There used to be 25 different species of bumblebee in the UK. Three are extinct and up to seven more are close to extinction.