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A Sting in the Tale by Dave GoulsonA Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2013)

I was looking forward to this book a lot after reading A Buzz in the Meadow (2014), which is the follow-up. I was disappointed. It’s a good book, but it suffered by comparison, seeming scrappier and less well-written than Buzz. And perhaps I was comparing it with Gerald Durrell’s books too, because Goulson starts by describing his childhood as a budding naturalist. He kept birds, amphibians and reptiles, collected insects and birds’-eggs, and dabbled in taxidermy. Like Durrell, he had a lot of failures and made a lot of mistakes, but that was part of learning his future profession.

By the time he was grown-up and a proper biologist, he’d discovered his main interest: bumblebees, which are the chief subject of this book. If you’re interested in them too, A Sting in the Tale will be a good introduction to their fascinating world. They illuminate many areas of biology, from genetics to parasitism, and they’re important to human beings not just agriculturally but aesthetically too. The sound and sight of bumblebees are a wonderful part of summer. It would be a poorer and less interesting world without them, and it’s sad that some species are declining or have disappeared in the British Isles.

Goulson is fighting to re-buzz Britain. He describes how he set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and how he’s trying to re-introduce the short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, to Dungeness Nature Reserve in Kent. There’s still a thriving natural population in Sweden and a thriving introduced one in New Zealand, which was founded when British bees were taken there in the nineteenth century to pollinate clover. So should the re-introduction to Britain be from Sweden or New Zealand? Goulson thought that there would be “a beautiful symmetry to the idea of bringing back these bees to the UK from the other side of the world after a 126-year absence” (ch. 17, “Return of the Queen”, pg. 236). But the New Zealand bees are highly inbred and seem to descend from just two introduced queens (pg. 234).

So Swedish bumblebees were used in the end. The re-introduction is still under way and some of the questions it raises haven’t been answered. Why are short-haired bumblebees still thriving in Sweden when they’ve declined elsewhere in Europe? And why hasn’t that genetic bottleneck harmed them in New Zealand? Goulson suggests possible reasons, but bumblebees will be baffling biologists for a long time to come. They’re hard to track on the wing and to find when they’re inside their nests, which is why chapter eight is about “bumblebee sniffer dogs”. It turned out that the dog-handler was better at finding nests than the dogs were (pp. 105-6). Experiments often go awry and hypotheses are often confounded. Like A Buzz in the Meadow, this book gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be a working scientist: it’s always fascinating, but often frustrating too.

Both books also lament the depredations of modern agriculture. And of modern horticulture: “bedding-plants have been intensively selected for size and colour, and in so doing they have lost their nectar, or become grossly misshapen or oversized so that it is impossible for bees to get to the rewards” (ch. 16, “A Charity Just for Bumblebees”, pg. 222). This means that “old-fashioned cottage garden perennials” are best: a “wildlife-friendly garden does not have to be a chaotic mass of nettles and brambles”. In the previous chapter, “Chez les Bourdons” (“At Home with the Bumblebees”), Goulson describes his attempt to establish a wildlife-friendly farm in France. That’s the tale he picks up in A Buzz in the Meadow, which uses the farm to discuss a wider variety of animals and plants than this book does.

Perhaps if I’d read the two books in the order he wrote them, I’d have enjoyed A Sting in the Tale more. As it is, the chapter I enjoyed most was “Chez les Bourdons”, which also supplied the most memorable – and gruesome – image in the book. Goulson says that kestrels catch and eat stag-beetles on warm summer evenings at his farm. But they discard the beetles’ heads, which “remain alive for a day or two, their antennae twitching and their great jaws slowly opening and closing” (pg. 203). Nature can be cruel and ugly as well as beautiful. But perhaps insects don’t suffer in any genuine sense. That’s one of the questions that biology is still to answer. In the meantime, Dave Goulson is doing a good job of explaining his science to the general reader.

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