Bumblebees in the Balance

We all need bumblebees – and perhaps no one’s more well-versed in the reasons why then UK-based conservationist and professor Dave Goulson. With the verve and wit of Bill Bryson, Goulson here riffs enthusiastically and expansively on all-things bumblebee in A Sting in the Tale, a lively combination of nature writing and childhood memoir. – Miwa Messer



“April is my favourite time of the year, for it is when the queen bumblebees wake up after an eight month sleep, and start to build their nests. As I write, I can see huge buff-tailed bumblebee queens quartering across my lawn, looking for a promising hole where they might raise their young. I hope that some will use the purpose-built nest boxes I made for them over the winter, for then I will be able to watch their comings and goings.

Every spring, I find that my first sighting of an emerging queen is a heart-warming and reassuring sight; the bumblebees are still with us. In the UK, this has been one of the wettest winters on record, with seemingly half the country under water through December and January. I had feared that the queens might have drowned in their underground hibernation sites. In 2010 and 2011 we had some of the coldest winters ever recorded, but when the weather warmed up the queens appeared, apparently unharmed. I shouldn’t be surprised. Bumblebees are resilient little creatures. They have been around for 30 million years or so, and have seen ice ages, woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers come and go, so they ought to be able to cope with a cold spell or a bit of rain.

Future climate change is likely to result in increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather events, but if this was the only problem bees faced then they might cope with it pretty well. Sadly this is not the only issue. Modern farming leaves little room for flowers, and so their food supply was massively reduced in the twentieth century as flower-rich meadows and hedgerows were swept away, and crop rotations involving clover leys were abandoned.

In addition, movement of domestic honeybee hives and factory-reared bumblebee nests (mainly used for tomato pollination) around the world has spread bee diseases, so that now, bees have to cope with new infections to which they have little natural resistance. For example, wild bumblebees in Europe and North America are now commonly afflicted with Asian bee diarrhoea (caused by a parasite named Nosema ceranae that originated in Asian honeybees). An unspecified European bee disease is widely believed to have been the final nail in the coffin for Franklin’s bumblebee, a species from northern California and Oregon that was last seen in 2006 and is now very likely extinct.

On top of this, systemic neonicotinoid insecticides have become widely used in the last 20 years, now suspected of causing all sorts of sub-lethal effects in bees including impairing their ability to navigate and learn how to gather food, and making them more susceptible to diseases. Bees living in farmland are simultaneously exposed to small amounts of these and dozens of other toxic chemicals throughout their lives, with poorly understood consequences for their health.  Neonicotinoids are also used in town; in a now notorious incident in Oregon in 2013, the spraying of these pesticides onto flowering linden trees in a parking lot (to prevent sticky honeydew from aphids falling onto people’s cars) resulted in a carpet of 50,000 dead bumblebees in just two days.

If all this were not enough, the Asian hornet is spreading through Europe – this large wasp, which feeds primarily on bees, was accidentally introduced to Bordeaux from Asia in 2004 (what on Earth where the French thinking of!), and has been advancing steadily across Europe ever since, arriving in Paris in 2012, and on the French channel coast in 2013. Perhaps Britain’s inclement and unpredictable weather will help to repel this new invader.

Given all this, the fact that there are any wild bumblebees left at all is a testament to their toughness. Half starved, infected with disease, battered by the fickle weather, and disoriented by poisoning with insecticides, it is a miracle that there are any of them left at all.

Sadly, although some bumblebee species remain reasonably common, others have declined. Three species have gone extinct in the UK, and in the USA five species have disappeared from much of their former range, with the rusty patched bumblebee, once common throughout eastern North America, in danger of following in the footsteps of Franklin’s bumblebee. This is alarming, because of course we need bees. Bumblebees are major pollinators of many crops, including for example raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, apples, runner beans and so on. Globally, three quarters of the crops we grow are pollinated by insects of one sort or another, predominantly bees, and the large majority of this pollination is delivered by wild bees, not by domesticated honeybees or factory-reared bumblebees. And of course the majority of wild flower species depend on wild bees for pollination. Bees need our help, and we need them, so it is time to act.

The biggest single problem is a lack of flowers for them to feed on, and we can all help. Gardens have already become a hotspot for bumblebees, providing a haven from the flowerless, pesticide-treated farmland. Suburban populations of bumblebees are often more dense than those on farms, with bumblebees spilling over from suburban areas to boost pollination of farmland crops. However, we can make our gardens better. For a start, forget annual bedding plants such as busy lizzies and begonias – they are useless for insects, lacking nectar and pollen or having an unnatural structure which makes their rewards inaccessible.  Instead, grow some old-fashioned cottage garden plants such as lavender, aquilegia, sage, thyme, comfrey and so on, and you will immediately provide your local bees with a food boost. Even plants in a windowbox will attract and feed bees. Of course don’t spray your flowers with pesticides – if you have a few aphids, live with it – before long a ladybird or lacewing will come along to eat them. If we give them enough food, our wild bees will stand a chance of coping with everything else that we throw at them. There is plenty that we can all do, right on our doorstep, and the time to start is now.”

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.