Reading matters

A sting in the tale

Arriving in the U.K a few weeks ago I was given a present by my sister.  She had been listening absent-mindedly to BBC Radio 4, while driving, when the words “bees” and “Charente” made her tune in to the programme.  She managed to absorb that they were discussing a book “A Sting in the Tale” by Dave Goulson and took the chance that I might find it interesting.

I did!

Usually I read my books very methodically reading any introductions etc. to begin with; however, I noticed a chapter “Chez Les Bourdons” so I couldn’t resist finding out what it was about immediately.  A bourdon is a bumble bee in French so I thought it might be devoted to the identification and natural history of French bumble bees.

It was not.

It was about his experiences in buying a small farm in the Charente.  This realised a dream to have land he could manage for nature and of course for bumble bees.  I felt an immediate empathy for him as we had bought our house and garden in the Charente-Maritime at about the same time.  I turned to the beginning of the book and started to read from the beginning with even more enthusiasm.

His style is very readable and personal.  If you ever wondered what Biology professors are like when they are little boys, now is your chance to find out.  He lightly traces his own life through his academic career with lots of anecdotes which never come to light reading the formalised style of a research paper.  He is hoping to create natural meadow land on his land in France and is experimenting to compare the different techniques of returning the farm land to flower rich meadow.  His ownership of the land secures this long term project from the vagaries of budget cuts and direction changes in funding bodies.

I was also fascinated to learn how bumble bees had been introduced to New Zealand in the late nineteen century to help the pollination of red clover being grown for fodder.  They were, of course, not the only animals and plants the settlers imported to “improve” their new home.  However, the short-haired bumble bee has now disappeared from the U.K.  Reading about the efforts being made to reintroduce the short-haired bumble bee to the U.K. brought home the problems man has created in his efforts to “improve” nature.

Even seemingly harmless bumble bees can upset established ecological systems as Goulson has seen for himself on his visits to Tasmania.  Australia has no native bumble bees but buff-tailed bumble bees (Bombus terrestris) which are excellent pollinators for tomato plants appeared in Tasmania in 1992.  Of course, the importation of non-native bees is forbidden in Australia and New Zealand but the first bumble bees were observed in Tasmania in 1992 which strangely coincides with the commercial production of bumble bees for pollination, particularly for tomatoes.

He explains in his book how the seemingly harmless introduction on a new species of bumble bee has effected visible changes in the ecology of Tasmania in a short period and speculates on possible future changes.

The book is full of personal stories and you can catch a backstage glimpse of the creation of the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, the charity he set up for bumble bees in 2006.  One of projects of the Trust was to re-introduce the short haired bumble bee to the UK.  Once again the book offers you a very person peep into the beginnings of this fascinating project.

Goulson endeared me by admitting that one of the reasons he started to study bumble bees was that they were “rather loveable”.  I think whether you are a bumble bee person or just interested in nature and life you will find this book a fascinating read.


27 thoughts on “Reading matters

  1. I listened to the book on the BBC and really enjoyed it. I didn’t know the story of bumble bees in Tasmania. I can remember bumble bees from my childhood in Victoria. I don’t know when or why they were introduced though. I’m guessing this is where the Tasmanian ones were sourced. Tomatoes, eh…one of the many major crops that honey bees do not pollinate…


    1. I think the implication is that they were illegally imported to be used as commercial pollinators and have escaped. Tomatoes have to be “buzz” pollinated and bumble bees do this best.


  2. This is another reminder that the best thing we can do for nature is look and enjoy it and stop trying to “improve” something that works just fine as it is. I wonder if people realize just how much trouble this world would be in if bees disappeared. It’s something I try not to think about.


    1. The bees are only a sign that a lot of people seem to be able to relate to and accept that things are not well. There are lots of other things that happen that we can’t see like the communities of soil bacteria that we are only just starting to study.


  3. Welcome home, Amelia..
    your special K has been doing wonders in your absence.

    Pauline and I really enjoyed the excerpts on Radio 4’s “Book of the Week”….
    and are intending to get the book as a result…
    the contents will be a good, informative read….
    I read some on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature…
    but I love the cover as well!!

    Messing around with Nature…
    “GM Rape will not enter the wild population”
    Fortunately it is not planted around here…
    but ordinary colza/rape is…
    and after this winter’s rain, the ditches…
    between us and Loches are full of lush rape plants…
    and, as it is an oil based seed…
    probably always will be, now….
    to the detriment of the wild flowers.


  4. Awhile back there were attempts to harvest bumblebees here in New Zealand to return them to the UK to help revive the bumblebee population in the UK. Not sure what eventuated.Perhaps this is mentioned in the book.


    1. This is the same Bumble Bee Conservation Trust that initiated this project to bring back the short-haired bumble bee to the U.K.. Goulson explains in his book how they got from the U.K. to New Zealand in the first place and how they tried in vain to bring them from New Zealand. They have now been reintroduced from European short haired bumble bees but it is too early to see if they will thrive. The project is explained in the book.


    1. Goulson has authored several papers over the years of the effects of pesticides on bumble bees. I have a concern that the world might make neonicotinoid pesticides a scapegoat whereas I feel the problem is much more complex and deeper than just one type of pesticide. I hope people feel strongly enough about it to stop using pesticides and herbicides in their own gardens and to lobby their municipalities to do the same. I hope they choose to eat food that has not been treated by these products and grown locally. That would certainly have an effect on commerce.


      1. I agree with you that there is a danger that the other threats facing bees will be forgotten following the ban on the neonics. Habitat loss, for example, feels to me like an important issue that could be addressed without too much difficulty. However, I don’t think we should underestimate the effect of the neonics on bumblebees and solitary bees. There are data showing that bumblebees are more sensitive to these compounds than honeybees.


  5. How interesting — and timely. I have yet to see a bee in the garden this summer (too cool), even the bumblebees. The apple blossoms came and went (along with the rain) without me seeing a bee. Our friends the bees, so greatly under-appreciated. Thanks for an interesting post.


  6. Funnily enough I just finished reading this book recently. I heard Dave Goulson speak at the Southbank Centre last month and bought his book there. He’s a great writer and I learnt many new things about bumbles.


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