Plight of the humble bee
This bee-hunting odyssey is informative and fun despite some environmental confusions, says John Lewis-stempel
READING Dave Goulson’s Bee Quest I was reminded of the old schoolboy joke: ‘Q: Describe in one word the worst snog you ever had. A: Fantastic!’ Even when Britain’s bee expert is performing slightly below par, he’s still great.
The Goulson formula in books is now well established: a slightly punny title (A Sting in the Tale, A Buzz in the Meadow), pages of genial, David Bellamyesque adventure as he goes net in hand in search of bees and bugs, plus about as much entomological information as the layperson can handle. Actually, he’s sometimes unnecessarily apologetic about the science; we pay him for the expert detail.
There is much apian marvellousness in Bee Quest. Who knew that bee species can be identified by their penis (what Prof Goulson calls ‘tackle’)? Or that Ecuadorean orchid bees store floral chemicals in hollow hind legs. Lazy Ecuadorean orchid bees mug rivals, ‘sucking the fatty perfume from their legs’ rather than bothering to visit flowers themselves to get the requisite ‘leg-full’.
As well as the cloud forest of Ecuador, Prof Goulson recounts bee-finding trips to Chile, California, the Outer Hebrides, Salisbury Plain, Poland’s Tatra mountains and Argentina. We want happy endings, but he’s a bee-hunter
‘He’s a beehunter in the modern Naturewrecking era
in the modern, Nature-wrecking era, the Anthropocene. There’s a real sadness to his Argentinian odyssey in search of Bombus dahlbomii, the golden giant bumblebee, the queens of which ‘resemble flying golden mice’. He fails to find a specimen because they’ve been driven from their lands by an introduced, invasive species, the European bumblebee.
Curiously, one of the richest bug habitats Prof Goulson explores is a brownfield site in Essex, the West Thurrock Lagoon. This postindustrial wasteland is home to no less than 36 Red Data Book species, among them the sea aster mining bee, which cleverly survives high tides by sealing its tunnel home. Not all the wonders of the natural world, the author reminds us, inhabit faraway places or the TV screen.
You have doubtless caught the double meaning of the book’s title, bee quest/bequest (if not, keep up at the back). The good professor, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, is justifiably concerned about the Nature—or rather lack of—we will leave our children.
We need bees. Bees are the sound of summer, objects of delight, as well as being the pollinators on which human life depends.
Readers may, however, have a gripe with the author’s solution to environmental woes. My antennae were raised on page 40 when he referred to Guardian journalist George Monbiot as a ‘friend’. Sure enough, Prof Goulson is a page-upon-page advocate of ‘rewilding’, the bien pensants’ current conservation fix, with its false premises and falser promises.
If there is one animal the rewilder hates, it’s the sheep, accused of the ‘destructive practice’ of closegrazing. Apparently unaware of the irony, Prof Goulson writes that the Adonis blue butterfly can only thrive on ‘close-grazed’ chalkland.
Actually, there is one beast the rewilder loathes more than the sheep: the farmer. Prof Goulson suggests that subsidising Hebridean farmers to maintain the corncrake-running machair is an expensive Disneyfication, but goes all gooey over the ‘rewilded’ Knepp Castle estate in West Sussex, which, with its Longhorn cows and Tamworth pigs, is really only extensive farming despite the trendy, selfapplied label. Bemused and confused? You bet. The itch to grade the work of a professor is overwhelmingly tempting. Here, he loses marks for rewilding propagandism, so B+. Or, rather, Bee+.
Nature Bee Quest
Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)