A Sting in the Tale
By Dave Goulson
Vintage Books (paperback and ebook)
Bumble bees are nice; it’s hard not to love them. Round and furry, with that reassuring buzz that makes you think of warm sunny days; from box flowers in early spring to fragrant banks of thyme in midsummer. Yes, they can sting, but generally they seem far too good natured to even contemplate it.
Dave Goulson writes with knowledge and passion about bumblebees. From a childhood spent collecting anything that moved, to a career as a professional scientist, he has made the bumble bee the object of his particular interest. Their life and well-being is clearly close to his heart. It is unusually pleasing too, to see full credit given to the numerous researchers who have worked under his guidance.
It may have become something of a narrative cliché to write of childhood thrills with butterfly net and collecting jar, but it is undoubtedly true that many a successful career in the life sciences has been built upon such early enthusiasms. Goulson thought of himself as a young Gerald Durrell, only without the benefit of living on Corfu with a personal tutor. He’s right about that, you don’t have to live in an exotic environment to develop a love of wildlife, it can just as easily be developed in rural Shropshire. It just needs an enquiring mind and a sense of wonder; for even the most advanced technological toy is nothing when compared to the sheer beauty and intricate complexity of the natural world. Give the child a magnifying glass and a jam-jar.
Sadly, in our own lifetime we have seen a catastrophic decline in the very fauna and flora that provided such inspiration. Agricultural policies introduced during the 1939-45 war continued for another 50 years, during which period we lost “... almost all the flower-rich habitats in the UK, and 98 per cent of our lowland hay meadows ...” Widespread use of herbicides and insecticides, together with the industrialisation of agricultural practice have devastated the natural environment to an unprecedented extent.
Nearly all invertebrates have suffered, and consequently so have species higher up the food chain. Like so many other invertebrates, the bumblebee is not as common as it once was. Intensive agriculture has robbed us of the wildflowers that provide the necessary source of pollen and nectar. Crops such as oil seed rape provide some, but it is a brief season of plenty in an otherwise barren environment; not present for long enough to sustain a colony of bees throughout the year. If you can, visit one of the tiny remnants of ‘unimproved’ meadowland now preserved by the Butterfly Conservation Trust, local wildlife trust or other enlightened organisation on a sunny summer's day for a glimpse of what we have lost.
Goulson’s tales are immensely entertaining; while I learned the history of the British Short-haired Bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) - how it was deliberately introduced from Britain into New Zealand as a pollinator in the 19th century and continues to flourish there as it declined to extinction in the UK, I also learned that the best place to buy venison pies in New Zealand is Arrowtown, and about a beer-drinking pig called Priscilla...
Goulson’s work, however, has not been confined to trying to re-introduce Short-haired Bumblebees to the UK. Keen to achieve other practical outcomes, Goulson bought a derelict farm in France where 10 years of his careful management have brought about the return of some significant species. He is also responsible for the formation of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which after a somewhat shambolic start in 2006, now boasts some 7,000 members.
When we look in our gardens and see the bumblebees and honeybees going about their business, how many of us wonder if these insects are native, or the result of the commercial introduction of foreign-bred individuals? The scale of the industrial process of breeding bumblebees and shipping them around the world for pollinating tomatoes is staggering. European factories produce more than a million nests each year.
What has always made ecology such a fascinating subject is the sheer complexity of species interrelationships and co-dependencies; and like so much that is done in the name of progress or commerce, the true impact of interventions is rarely understood before an irreversible change has been made. Goulson's descriptions of the ‘Frankenstein ecosystem’ we have created in New Zealand are both revelatory and alarming, but it is just one example of a worldwide phenomenon.
The chapters include bumblebee history, navigation, sex and society. It is a book packed with information. Did you know that a bumblebee’s metabolic rate was 75 per cent higher than a hummingbird’s; or that sister bumblebees are more closely related to each other than to their mother or to their own offspring? So much information could easily have become tedious or pedagogic, but Goulson’s lightness of style and his willingness to share even the unsuccessful research projects make it a joy to read.
And so, incidentally, the lay reader gains an unusual insight into the sometimes hit-and-miss process of scientific research, from the training of bumblebee sniffer dogs and their handlers to the innovative use of an orange traffic cone attached to the side of Southampton University. It is very tempting to relate some of Goulson's stories, but it would be far better if you buy the book and read it all yourself!
A Sting in the Tale is a delightful book; genuine research leavened by anecdote and historical asides, and well indexed too. Written with an easy style, humorous but full of sound scientific information, by a man who clearly cares about his subject. If there is any hope that the devastatingly destructive effects of humankind on the rest of the natural world can be checked then we need more scientists like Goulson who can communicate with such infectious enthusiasm and passion.
Christopher W Morris (www.chriswmorrisphoto.com)