A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees

A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees

by Dave Goulson


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Dave Goulson became obsessed with wildlife as a small boy growing up in rural Shropshire, starting with an increasingly exotic menagerie of pets. When his interest turned to the anatomical, there were even some ill-fated experiments with taxidermy. But bumblebees are where Goulson's true passion lies.
His passionate quest to reintroduce the bumblebee to its native land is one of the highlights of a book that includes exclusive research into these mysterious creatures, history's relationship with the bumblebee, and advice on how to protect the bumblebee for future generations.
One of the United Kingdom's most respected conservationists and the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Goulson combines light-hearted tales of a child's growing passion for nature with a deep insight into the crucial importance of the bumblebee. He details the minutiae of life in the nest, sharing fascinating research into the effects intensive farming has had on our bee population and the potential dangers if we are to continue down this path.

Editorial Reviews

Author of Bumblebee Economics and Mind of the Rave Bernd Heinrich

Goulson's adventures with bumblebees tells the well-written story of the making of a naturalist, and also enchantingly informs us not only about bees but also about ecosystems and conservation.

author of Pulitzer Prize Finalist The Forest Unsee D. G. Haskell

Fascinating and inspiring. Dave Goulson is a genial raconteur, with much to teach us about the biology and conservation of our insect cousins.

Publishers Weekly

Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (U.K.), offers what is ostensibly a survey of the bumblebee, the "most gentle and friendly of insects," but which reads more like a biologist's memoir—a conversational exchange with the reader replete with jokes, anecdotes, and personal asides. He recounts his life in conservation, beginning with a pastoral childhood that involved hobbies of egg collecting and taxidermy, through to his professional research, wherein he explores both the achievements and limitations of sometimes "decidedly fruitless" scientific efforts. Fondly recalling quirky graduate students previously in his employ and their shared successes and charming mishaps with "various schemes" to monitor bumblebees, Goulson's personal touch is stamped throughout. This intimate quality does bring with it the occasional dip into nostalgic indulgence and irrelevant interjections about his " pie obsession." The niche field of bumblebee research can feel insular (even honeybees are peripheral creatures in this work), but Goulson reminds the reader of the subject's relevance through the bumblebee's role in global food production and overall biodiversity. Though his conclusions and observations are occasionally benign, they are frequently peppered with fascinating observations, a sense of good cheer, and Goulson's undeniable passion for an oft-uncelebrated subject, here presented for appreciation by the casual armchair naturalist. (May)

From the Publisher

A Sting in the Tale melts memoir and conservation issues into a sweet pot, moving from subject to subject very much in the manner of a foraging bee seeking flowers….The book is warm and delightful: I frequently found myself wanting to put it down to go bird and bee-watching, to find for myself the species [Goulson] discusses.” —NPR

A Sting in the Tale is both a whodunit as well as a revealing study of a bug on whom we depend a great deal.” —Seattle Times

“[Goulson's] enthusiasm shines through as he tells of his attempt to bring the short-haired bumblebee back to Britain, its native land....Goulson transforms what could be dry material with stinging wit.” —New York Post

“Goulson's personal touch is stamped throughout...peppered with fascinating observations, a sense of good cheer, and Goulson's undeniable passion for an oft-uncelebrated subject, here presented for appreciation by the casual armchair naturalist.” —Publishers Weekly

“What you never knew about bumblebees, from a man who is both passionate and knowledgeable....[An] impressive debut....A delightful book by an author filled with enthusiasm for the natural world and in possession of just the right touch for sharing it with others.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Absorbing and informative...An outstanding piece of nature writing that also celebrates one of mankind's most cherished insects.” —Booklist

“Fascinating and inspiring. Dave Goulson is a genial raconteur, with much to teach us about the biology and conservation of our insect cousins.” —D. G. Haskell, author of Pulitzer Prize Finalist The Forest Unseen

“Goulson's adventures with bumblebees tells the well-written story of the making of a naturalist, and also enchantingly informs us not only about bees but also about ecosystems and conservation.” —Bernd Heinrich, Author of Bumblebee Economics and Mind of the Raven

“[Goulson's] book is not only enormously informative, but also hugely entertaining: its light touch and constant humour make cutting-edge research a pleasure to read about. For anyone interested in the natural world, this is essential reading.” —The Independent (London)

“Goulson combines enthusiasm with academic authority, addressing the amateur beekeeper and professional apiarist in well-judged proportion.” —The Times (London)

“Goulson has plenty of wondrous biological stories to tell, as well as the tale of his own struggle to return the short-haired bumblebee to Britain.” —The Guardian (London)

Library Journal

Goulson (biological and environmental sciences, Univ. of Stirling) explores the world of the bumblebee, sharing his many years of related research in this engaging, at times humorous, book. At a young age the author developed an interest in animals and attracting insects to gardens, leading to his studying biology at Oxford. Here Goulson shares bumblebee biology and natural history including evolution, foraging behavior, reproduction, locating nests (e.g., using a trained sniffer dog), predators, and issues related to introducing nonnative species. The author also discusses his attempt to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee to the UK using bees from New Zealand and Sweden. Concerned about the decline in numbers of the creatures Goulson founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and he shares information about the creation of this new charity and its early days as well as ways to protect bumblebees and their habitat. Finally, he covers his purchase of land in France and how he created a meadow to use for long-term studies. VERDICT A fascinating look at bumblebees and a biologist and his students at work that will appeal to readers who enjoy natural history writing.—Sue O'Brien, Downers Grove P.L., IL

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2014-03-12
What you never knew about bumblebees, from a man who is both passionate and knowledgeable. Bumblebee Conservation Trust founder Goulson (Biological and Environmental Sciences/Univ. of Stirling) has been fascinated with nature since his childhood. His tales of collecting insects, raising frogs and snakes, dissecting roadkill and even teaching himself taxidermy as a child serve as a light, engaging introduction to this often humorous but deadly serious account. During his lifetime, wild bumblebees have been disappearing at an alarming rate, and Goulson makes clear why this has happened and why we should care about it. He examines their mating behaviors, life cycle, genetics, nesting habits (unlike honeybees, they don't build hives), foraging techniques (smelly footprints help them tell which flowers have been recently drained of nectar), navigation skills and their many enemies. The extreme measures he and his research assistants take to study bumblebees will astonish—attaching antennas to bees is a tricky business, and collecting their feces is even more difficult. Even finding bees can be a challenge, as the author relates in stories about attempts to restore Great Britain's short-haired bumblebee population by capturing queen bees in New Zealand, to which the species had been exported in the 19th century. The success of another project—releasing bees imported from Sweden into an area around Dungeness—remains to be determined. Goulson also relates his adventures turning a dilapidated French farm into a thriving bumblebee reserve. Educating the public about bumblebees and encouraging creation of habitats beneficial to them are two of the goals of the BBCT, and they are surely the impetus behind Goulson's impressive debut. A delightful book by an author filled with enthusiasm for the natural world and in possession of just the right touch for sharing it with others.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250070975
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 414,656
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Sting in the Tale

My Adventures With Bumblebees

By Dave Goulson


Copyright © 2013 Dave Goulson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-04838-7


The Short-haired Bumblebee

In the 1870s, New Zealand farmers found that the red clover which they had imported from Britain, as a fodder crop for horses and cattle, did not set much seed. As a result, they found themselves having to continually import more seed from Europe at considerable expense, rather than collecting and sowing their own. In the end a solicitor named R. W. Fereday worked out the cause of the problem. Fereday had emigrated to New Zealand in 1869 and, aside from his legal work, was a keen entomologist with a particular interest in small moths. It was Fereday who realised, while staying on his brother's farm, that the problem lay in the absence of the bumblebees which normally pollinated the clover back in Britain. The problem was taken up by Frank Buckland, Her Majesty's Inspector of Fisheries at the time, whose remit seems to have extended well beyond fish. He wrote back to England with a request for bumblebees to be sent on the steamships which regularly plied between Britain and New Zealand. The first, rather ill-thought out, attempt to do so involved a Dr Featherston digging up two carder bumblebee nests in late summer and sending them to the Honourable John Hall of Plymouth, New Zealand, in 1875. They arrived in January and, inevitably, were all dead. Bumblebee nests naturally die out in September, and in any case there were no flowers on the ship for them to feed on, so this scheme was doomed from the start.

Eight years later the idea was revived with rather more competence. A Mr S. G. Farr, secretary of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society (of whom more later), contacted Thomas Nottidge, a banker from Maidstone in Kent, asking for more bumblebees to be sent. (They also asked him for a few hedgehogs while he was at it – as you do.) So it was that, in the autumn of 1884, Nottidge offered a bounty to farm labourers for every hibernating bumblebee queen that they could find. Hand digging, clearing and widening of ditches was a common autumn and winter practice on arable farms when there wasn't much else to keep farm labourers busy, and these labourers often turned up the plump hibernating queens as they dug, suggesting that queen bees particularly like to hibernate in ditch banks. As a result, a total of 282 queens were obtained and placed on the SS Tongariro, one of the first steamships to be built with a refrigeration unit. This was essential as the hibernating queens would otherwise have become too warm when crossing the equator, and would have woken up and quickly died. The Tongariro left London in December 1884 and arrived in Christchurch on 8 January 1885 (high summer in New Zealand). When they were warmed up, forty-eight queens proved to still be alive. They were fed with honey and flew away. A further consignment of 260 queens was sent that same January on a sister ship, the SS Aorangi, and arrived on 5 February. Of these, forty-nine were still alive and were released.

We have no idea what species of bumblebee these ninety-seven queens belonged to, or how many survived long enough to build a nest and produce offspring. What we do know is that some thrived in their new home for, by the summer of 1886, bumblebees were seen up to 100 miles south of Christchurch. Indeed, by 1892 bumblebees had become so common in some areas that honeybee keepers feared they might become a pest.

British bumblebees flourish in New Zealand to this day. On their long boat trip they also left behind many of the diseases and parasites that attack them in their native land, which probably helped considerably. The species that survived are an odd selection. We might have expected them to be the most common Kent species, but either our most common species were not included or they failed to survive. The four now found in New Zealand are the buff-tailed bumblebee, the garden bumblebee, the ruderal bumblebee and the short-haired bumblebee. Of these, the buff-tailed is by far the most common – they are everywhere, from the gardens and parks of Christchurch to the spectacular fjords of Milford Sound, where I have seen them feeding on the flowers of the gigantic New Zealand flax. The short-haired bumblebee is the least common, but if you know where to look, they can still be found in central South Island.

Sadly, two of these species have not fared so well in the UK. The ruderal bumblebee was once known as the 'large garden bumblebee' because it was a familiar sight in gardens throughout much of England. Nowadays the ruderal bumblebee is an exceedingly rare creature, found only in a few places in the East Midlands and East Anglia. The short-haired bumblebee has fared even worse. One hundred years ago they were common in the south and east of England, but during the second half of the twentieth century their numbers plummeted. By the 1980s they were known only in a handful of places, and one by one, those populations disappeared. The last individual was caught near Dungeness in 1988; it fell into a pitfall trap used to monitor beetles and drowned. No one has seen any since.

Of course you will have worked out why these bees disappeared. It happened while I was growing up. When I was born in 1965 the short-haired bumblebee was still quite widespread, although not as far north and west as Shropshire. By the time I went to university in 1984 it was nearly extinct. I never saw one before they vanished.

Here's why: it's Adolf Hitler's fault. To be absolutely fair, it wasn't entirely his fault, but he has to carry some of the blame. One hundred years ago, farming was not mechanised. Without mechanisation, fields tended to be small. Farmers depended on horses for power, and horses love to eat clover, so most farmers grew clover. Bees also love clover. Both the horses and other farm livestock needed hay for the winter, so most farmers had hay meadows. These were permanent features of the farm, cut once or twice a year, and sometimes grazed a little in the milder winter months. Artificial fertilisers weren't available, so apart from a bit of animal dung the meadows were not fertilised. In the low-nutrient soils of hay meadows, wild flowers flourished, particularly those with symbiotic root bacteria that could trap nitrogen from the air and so didn't need nutrient-rich soil. The main family that can do this is that of the legumes: vetches, trefoils and clovers (and also our garden peas and beans). Bees love them all.

Arable crops need fertile soils. The traditional way to maintain soil fertility was to grow crops in rotation. For many centuries, European farmers used a three-year rotation of rye or wheat followed by oats or barley, then letting the field lie fallow in the third year. In the eighteenth century, a British agriculturalist named Charles Townshend promoted a four-year rotation, using wheat, turnips, barley and clover in succession. The nitrogen fixed by the clover boosted soil fertility in the following years, increasing yields, and the scheme was widely adopted. So, imagine Britain a hundred years ago; a patchwork of small fields, cereals and root crops intermixed with clover leys and permanent hay meadows. No artificial fertilisers, no pesticides. Lots and lots of happy bees.

Then roll forwards a few years. The internal combustion engine had by now provided farmers with an alternative to horses, in the form of tractors. The booming motor industry demanded oil, and the petrochemical industry that grew up on its back made it possible to synthesise cheap nitrogen-based fertilisers. These greatly boosted crop yields and removed the need for rotations, so clover leys were abandoned. Moreover, horses were no longer needed, so no clover was necessary for feeding them.

Silage making is an alternative approach to providing winter fodder for livestock. Where hay requires a dry period for harvesting, meaning that wet summers can be a disaster for farmers dependent on it to feed their animals, the grass for silage can be cut even when it is wet. With the addition of cheap fertilisers to hay meadows, the grass grows much more quickly and so can be cut for silage many times during the spring and summer, providing a larger and more reliable supply of winter fodder. An unfortunate side effect is that adding fertilisers to hay meadows quickly results in the disappearance of most of the wild flowers. The clovers and other legumes, which used to gain an edge from their ability to fix nitrogen from the air, lose their advantage when nitrates are poured on to the ground, and cannot compete with fast-growing grasses.

None of this sounds good for bees, for fewer clover leys and fewer hay meadows means fewer flowers. So where does Hitler come in? By the advent of the Second World War, farming in the UK was changing, but only slowly. The techniques for growing more food were available – tractors, fertilisers, silage – but farmers tend to be traditionalists at heart and often farm as their parents farmed. There was no great pressure to change. Then, in 1940, Britain found itself isolated. No food could be brought over from mainland Europe. Obtaining supplies from across the Atlantic was perilous, with U-boats taking a heavy toll on shipping convoys. Before the war, Britain had been importing about 55 million tons of food each year. Suddenly, being able to supply enough food for our substantial population living on our small and crowded island became terribly important. As a result, the government launched a 'Dig for Victory' campaign, encouraging everybody to dig up their lawn and grow as much food as possible. At the same time, farmers were encouraged to use every measure available to maximise food production. Patches of land which had previously been deemed too small to bother with were now ploughed and sown with crops, hedges were ripped out, marshes were drained. Between 1939 and 1945 the area of land used for food production rose by 80 per cent.

From a bumblebee's perspective, the war era led to some other unfortunate developments. The chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloro-ethane (usually known as DDT) was first made in 1874, but its incredibly high toxicity to insects wasn't discovered until 1939, when the Allies were desperately searching for chemicals to help combat the mosquitoes that spread malaria and typhus among the troops fighting in Asia. By 1945, DDT was readily and very cheaply available as an agricultural insecticide. It was twenty years before its long persistence and devastating effects on the environment began to be recognised. Also during the war, research in Germany into chemical warfare agents (nerve gases) led to the development of a range of organophosphate chemicals which were also highly toxic to insects. These too became available to farmers shortly after the war, providing them with a growing armoury of pretty unpleasant compounds with which to combat insect pests.

After the war ended, the policies which had been introduced to increase food production continued. Food rationing ended in 1954, but farmers carried on receiving financial incentives to increase production until the 1990s. Over a period of fifty years, we therefore destroyed almost all the flower-rich habitats in the UK, and 98 per cent of our lowland hay meadows disappeared. The short-haired bumblebee died out because the habitats in which it lived were swept away. It wasn't all that fussy, it just needed enough flowers to feed on. No flowers equals no bees. It is not rocket science.

Luckily for the short-haired bumblebee, Hitler didn't have the same impact on New Zealand. In fact there is a certain irony that this species now survives in the clover-rich pastures that man has created in New Zealand by clearing dense native forests which would have been entirely unsuitable for bumblebees, whilst back in its native land we have been busy destroying its habitat. While the short-haired bumblebee has been away, many changes have taken place in Britain. Yet by the 1980s and 1990s it was becoming all too obvious that most of our wildlife was in rapid decline, and that in the long term what we were doing to the countryside might not be sustainable. Farms need flowers to support the bees that pollinate our crops, and they need predatory beetles, wasps and flies to eat the pests that eat the crops. So it was that schemes were introduced to pay farmers for encouraging wildlife on their land. Farmers can now get funding to re-sow the wild flower meadows and replant the hedges that only thirty years ago they were paid to remove. It might just be that we have turned a corner. But if British wildlife is very slowly beginning to recover, it can certainly do with a helping hand.

The presence of British short-haired bumblebees in New Zealand provided a unique and exciting opportunity to give our beleaguered wildlife a boost, and to act as a flagship for conservation efforts for bees and flowers. Why not bring them back from New Zealand? Could we once again have short-haired bumblebees buzzing across the British landscape?

One obvious obstacle is that we didn't know much about this creature. There was very little in the way of studies of short-haired bumblebees before they went extinct in the UK. There would be no point in bringing them back and then watching them die out again for exactly the reason they died out in the first place. We would need to be certain that there were now enough of the right flowers for them to feed on, but we had scant records as to the flowers they favour.

So it was that in January 2003, I found myself in New Zealand with a friend and colleague, Mick Hanley, in search of the short-haired bumblebee. Mick is a stocky, ginger-haired beer-drinking Black Country lad, who did his PhD on slugs (he prefers to call it 'seedling herbivory', but a lot of slugs were involved). At the time he was working for me on an ill-fated project to find a means of controlling fly outbreaks on landfill sites, but he is an excellent botanist and shares my enthusiasm for pies, so he made a great travelling companion. Our mission was to find out more about the food plants and habitats of the elusive short-haired bumblebee, to pave the way for an attempt at reintroduction. We needed to know which flowers it favoured for collecting pollen, which for nectar, and what habitats it was found in. Ideally, we wanted to find out where it liked to nest. Once we knew these things, it might be possible to recreate suitable habitat in Britain. Good reasons though these were, the prospect of escaping the northern winter for New Zealand summer sunshine was also attractive.

We set out from Christchurch in a tiny and rather flimsy hire car, heading south-west towards the centre of South Island which was where, we were told, the short-haired bumblebee had its hideaway. New Zealand is a land of marked contrasts. Christchurch sits on the Canterbury Plain, a rather monotonous and absolutely flat stretch of farmland covered in a neat grid of rectangular fields and a scattering of small, pretty but unremarkable towns. As we hurtled along the dead-straight road – Mick has a habit of driving ludicrously fast – ahead and to the right we could see in the distance the snow-capped peaks of Mount Cook National Park. Every few miles we crossed rivers full of snow-melt flowing down from the mountains to the sea, their shingle banks clothed in yellow tree lupins. We stopped for the night in the pleasant market town of Geraldine, and the next day, with me at the wheel, we proceeded at a slightly more leisurely pace along increasingly windy roads as our route started to climb into the foothills of the Mount Cook range. There, the neat arable fields gave way to sprawling sheep ranches and scree-covered hillsides glowing purple with viper's bugloss. According to the old records, we were entering short-haired bumblebee territory. Every few miles we stopped and searched, finding that buff-tailed bumblebees were common everywhere, and ruderal bumblebees almost as abundant. The latter was a real treat as I had only ever seen one small worker before, on Salisbury Plain. At this time of year in New Zealand the ruderal queens were still on the wing; they are absolutely huge, the biggest British species, more like flying mice than bumblebees. They are also unusual in that they come in many colours (most bumblebee species are fairly uniform). Some are entirely jet black, others have a range of brown or yellow stripes and white or brownish bottoms. It would be wonderful if they could one day become a common sight in British gardens as they once were.


Excerpted from A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson. Copyright © 2013 Dave Goulson. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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