Plight of the hum­ble bee

This bee-hunt­ing odyssey is in­for­ma­tive and fun de­spite some en­vi­ron­men­tal con­fu­sions, says John Lewis-stem­pel

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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)

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