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.
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.