A Sting in the Tale, Published by Jonathan cape, 2013, available all good book stores and the usual online sources.
BBC Radio 4 "Book of the Week".
Shorlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
A Sunday Times Bestseller.
Dave Goulson has always been obsessed with wildlife, from his childhood menagerie of exotic pets and dabbling in experimental taxidermy to his groundbreaking research into the mysterious ways of the bumblebee and his mission to protect our rarest bees.
Once commonly found in the marshes of Kent, the short-haired bumblebee now only exists in the wilds of New Zealand, the descendants of a few queen bees shipped over in the nineteenth century. Dave Goulson’s passionate drive to reintroduce it to its native land is one of the highlights of a book that includes exclusive research into these curious creatures, history’s relationship with the bumblebee and advice on how to protect it for all time.
One of the UK’s most respected conservationists and the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Goulson combines Gerald Durrell-esque 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 their nests, sharing fascinating research into the effects intensive farming has had on our bee populations and on the potential dangers if we are to continue down this path.
A Sting in the Tale was BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, 6-10 May 2013. The five 15 min excerpts were read by Tim McKinnery:
Review by Mike mcCarthy, Environment Editor, the Independent
Bumblebees seem to be our second favourite insects, after butterflies; like Boris Johnson, they can do no wrong for most people, being similarly shaggy-haired, rotund, colourful and seemingly friendly. I share these sentiments, so I feel as keenly as the next person the bumblebee withdrawal symptoms that are occasioned by this year’s truly arctic early spring.
Bumblebees are nowhere to be seen at the moment. They are seriously late. Bumblebee colonies die off in the autumn with only the queen surviving – to hibernate through the winter with eggs and sperm inside her – before starting a new colony the following year – so it’s the queens that we see first, big fat things twice the size of the workers, when they emerge. That happens in March or even as early as February. But in 2013, with April nearing the end of its first week, they’re still hunkered down.
At least, I haven’t seen one yet, and I thought I would over Easter, spent in deepest Dorset – but it was the coldest Easter since records began. All the yellow flowers were out, coloured yellow, probably, for the very purpose of attracting the early pollinating insects with queen bumblebees prime candidates: the daffodils resplendent in the villages, the celandines and primroses lighting up the dark lanes, the gorse bushes ablaze behind the shoreline. Yet in the frozen air, nothing was buzzing around them.
I don’t suppose it can be much longer? Can it? But I made up for the lack of them by reading a wonderful book about bumblebees, to be published in three weeks’ time – A Sting In The Tale by Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape). Professor Goulson is not only our national expert on the genus Bombus (the 27 British bumblebee species have all got that in their scientific names) but also the man who founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006 – not least because two of the 27 had gone extinct, and six more were rapidly declining, and he wanted to do something about it.
If most of us do indeed love bumblebees, this is a man who is infatuated. Yet his 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, whether it concerns navigation, evolution, mating, parasites, the fact that bumblebees have smelly feet which leave traces on a flower, so other bees can tell that it’s just been visited and the nectar’s been grabbed so it’s not worth bothering with – or the even more curious fact that you can train up a bumblebee sniffer dog to sniff out nests (and Professor Goulson and his colleagues did, twice) but in the end, humans can do the job better.
The book’s memorable opening chapter is about the Professor’s early childhood as a wildlife enthusiast, which was accident-prone to a degree – he incinerated some cold-afflicted bumblebees by trying to warm them up on the hot plate of the stove, and electrocuted all his pet fish – but its ultimate purpose is deeply serious, and it contains a grim warning about the industrial breeding, and export, of bumblebees as agricultural pollinators, as this may spread bee diseases across the globe. For anyone interested in the natural world, this is essential reading.
A Sting in the Tale review – a book to make you bee-conscious
I noticed the words "bestseller" on the cover of this book, and thought "Come off it," but Goulson is particularly gifted at transmitting his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, these flying balls of fur, so it shouldn't be a surprise. Experts in animal behaviour do tend to be, to a hugely engaging degree, oddballs. (Cf Hugh Warwick's A Prickly Affair, about hedgehogs, which I reviewed four years ago.)
It might be best, though, if you read this book in solitude. Right from the start, anyone near me was at risk of being bombarded with Fascinating Facts I'd picked up. For instance, you know when you see the first bumblebee of the year, and it's so big that you almost jump out of your skin? That's because it's a queen, who, as well as being larger than her subjects, has been hibernating and is stuffed full to bursting. (Though ruderal bumblebees, which used to be extremely widespread in this country, but now live mainly in New Zealand, are all impressively hefty: "more like flying mice than bumblebees", as Goulson puts it.) Who is chiefly responsible for the decline in bumblebee populations in this country over the last 60 years? Adolf Hitler. (One never ceases to be amazed at the scope of his malevolence.) The reason being that in order to become as close to self-sufficient in food production as we could, our centuries-old patchwork of fields, with their many flower- and wildlife-supporting hedgerows, had to be torn up and replaced with the vast fields of arable we see today; and heavily fertilised soils favour grasses over the wild flowers, which vanish under the competition; also, the very rapid spread of mechanisation, which demanded such changes to the land meant farmers were no longer reliant on horses. Horses love clover, which farmers would allow to grow for their benefit; and bumblebees love clover even more than horses do, so when the clover went, so did the bees.
The story of the disappearance of bumblebees is a woeful one, true – and we have not even got to the matter of pesticides and their part in bees' downfall yet – but Goulson's good humour and high spirits give us hope. (Not to mention his turn of phrase, a constant pleasure. Even when he's informing us about the body temperatures of bees and the importance of surface area relative to volume in animals, he can be funny.)
Goulson is actively involved in conservation and repopulation, and tells us that the surprising thing is that all our significant knowledge of bumblebees is relatively recent: at the end of the 19th century, the world's most informed authority on bumblebees was a 16-year-old boy called Frederick Sladen.
So there is much to learn, as well as much to do. In an attempt to cease relying on the short-termism of university funding, Goulson has bought a property in Charente, in south-west France, where he can experiment with various wild flowers (there is a hugely amusing diversion on the difficulties of buying property in rural France; and, like many good scientists, he speaks virtually no French at all).
The important thing is that this book will make you bee-conscious. You will learn a lot, not just about bumblebees, and you will never have a dull moment. But there is some urgency here. The story of the extinction of whole species of native bumblebee in this country alone is one that needs to be more widely known. So read this book. Do it for the bees.