‘A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,’ by David Goulson
Special to the Daily
In our modern world of collapsing ecosystems and vanishing species, it is hard to be unaware of the plight of the planet’s pollinators, most notably the honeybee. David Goulson, author and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, writes of his love for bees of all sorts, using his experiences and knowledge in the field of entomology to sound the warning bell about these imperiled and crucial insects.
His charming and highly illuminating book, “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,” probes deeply into the world of bees, leaving the reader with a sense of wonder and an eagerness to fill the world with clover in an attempt to remedy the looming collapse.
Now a highly respected conservationist, Goulson has a fascination with insects that began at an early age. His book opens in his childhood garden, in Shropshire, England, where he took to planting flowers, learning early on the connection between the insects and the beauty he wanted to cultivate in his family’s garden.
Armed with plenty of amusing anecdotes of his often-disastrous youthful attempts at keeping pets, Goulson describes the unconventional acquisition as a youngster of his first catalog of “entomological equipment” as a pivotal moment that helped set him on his life’s trajectory.
The shorthaired bumblebee becomes his poster boy and the focus of much of his research and his career. He uses the story of this small insect’s disappearance from England as an example of how complicated the effort to save and restore bee populations really is. As the world’s scientists struggle to explain the broad collapse of many bee colonies, Goulson weaves together a tapestry of clues as he follows the path of the shorthaired bumblebee from the shores of Britain to distant New Zealand in the 1870s, and the subsequent attempts to re-establish it.
He cites as one contributor to the diminishing bee population the changes in England’s farming techniques during the Industrial Age, when the need for horses was replaced by machinery. Fewer horses meant fewer acres needed for growing clover, a staple food source for livestock. This, along with the rise of pesticides and fertilizers, and the shift to many acres of land filled with few varieties of nonflowering crops, meant bees had to navigate greater distances to find wildflowers and suitable nesting places.
“No flowers equals no bees. It is not rocket science.” Wildflower meadows, Goulson insists, are vital to the health of the ecosystem, as are the bees that provide a large portion of the pollinating. The author clearly lays out the annual cycle of the bee in fascinating and clear detail, painting a vivid picture of the interconnectivity of the plant-pollinator relationship. Disrupt the balance too much, and a potentially irreversible collapse could occur.
Pollen is rich in protein and essential for egg development in the queens, who are the first to heroically venture out in the spring in search of nutrients after a long hibernation. So much can go wrong on those maiden flights, even in a well-balanced environment, so it is not a surprise that bees face an uphill battle just to survive to produce offspring for the following year. Bees are extremely sensitive, which can spell serious trouble in these days of spiraling climate change.
Goulson’s love of bees is evident on every page, and he details the many intriguing aspects of their lives. His careful descriptions of the bees he has studied, and his passionate entreaties to the reader to go forth and plant flowers, do not come across as preaching, rather as cheerleading for his favorite team, a group of players who must remain on the field for the whole exhausting game to win the tournament. Without bees, and especially without wild bees, the dominoes would fall, not just limiting what fruits might be in our morning smoothies.
Some crops, he points out, need bees for successful seeding, including many feed crops upon which cattle and other livestock depend. Bees are unknowingly generous and hard-working little creatures, and Goulson insists that anyone can do their small part in helping them thrive. Planting flowers and giving them space to thrive are two simple ones, and reconsidering our dependence on chemicals and poisons will do both the bees and us an immense service.
He concludes by saying that everyone has a place in their heart for a scenic meadow of rippling colors, with a peaceful buzzing on a warm summer evening. “It is as near to heaven as most of us are ever likely to get; what more reason could we need to create and look after such places?”
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