What’s the buzz? Scientist Dave Goulson has a new book out, “A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm” (Picador), which is about the teeming insect life on a small, tumble-down farm he bought in France. He is turning the land itself back into a natural, flower-filled refuge for all kinds of small creatures that had been driven off it as a result of over-farming and too much fertilizer. One thing Goulson revealed in his first book, “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,” and which he expands upon here, is that fertilizer is not good for wildflowers, which neither want nor need it. In fact, he plants grass on his land in order to leach the nitrogen from the soil that had been added to it for cultivation over the years, and he lets his neighbors cut it and keep it for hay. His neighbors appreciate it, but probably also think he’s crazy, a notion that is only reinforced when he gathers a group of students together to plant wildflower seeds, doing a strange dance along furrowed rows as they do so. He is particularly interested in attracting bees, his favorite insect and a scientific specialty.
He recently spent time in Ecuador tracking unusual bees with big bug eyes, which enable them to see, and thus mate with, more females. He describes amusingly in his books his attempts to have various amphibians and other animals as pets, efforts which usually end in disaster. These days, however, he has a dog, a bearded dragon and several walking sticks (insects), including one from Borneo that disguises itself from birds by growing what resemble dead leaves and twigs.
Goulson begins each chapter in the book with a tally of the number of human beings, dogs and butterflies he sees each day when he goes for a run on his farm. “It’s my way of distracting myself from the pain of running,” he says. There are always considerably more animals and insects than people. “I am a slightly obsessive wildlife nut myself,” he says, and the new book has many happy digressions into such topics as death watch beetles, which he refuses to kill even though they are living in his house and eating his furniture. It turns out that they are called death watch beetles because their tapping or ticking noises are usually not heard unless the house is completely quiet — as on a death watch. He will not lace his furniture with insecticide because death watch beetles consume little and eat so slowly that he believes that it will probably take them about 100 years to make serious inroads into his furniture. He admires their curious lifestyle — which involves the transfer of a large package of nutrients during mating — and doesn’t want to be the one to bring it to an abrupt close.
The writer, whose day job is as a professor of biology at the University of Stirling in Scotland, originally bought the farm in France because he couldn’t afford to purchase anything equivalent in England. When his wife first saw the property, he had done little to improve it, and it was also a rainy day, which didn’t show it off to best advantage. “She wasn’t happy,” he admits. “I thought I had made a horrible mistake.” Now the buildings have been renovated, but it’s even more wild and woolly in the fields, and she and their three sons love it. When it’s time to go back to England after their summer break, they all say that they can’t wait to return. The roof, however, still tends to leak, because their father does not want to replace the old-fashioned and not terribly efficient tiles on the roof with more effective new ones.
Another thing Goulson pointed out in his first book that he reinforces here is that the die-off of insect life in Great Britain is due to the expansion of cultivation into every possible square foot of land, which took place when England was cut off from external sources of food by Nazi bombardment during World War II. Farmed land is usually not particularly hospitable to insect life. And, he notes, years after the war ended, the government was still encouraging people to tear down hedges and farm more. Hedges, as it turns out, are great environments for insects and small animals, providing wonderful sites for nests.
One benefit of the location of his farm is that wildlife is much more interesting in France. Nevertheless, despite the pull of the cultural concept of terroir, there are not nearly as many people who are concerned with birds, animals and insects as there are in the U.K., although they have many more versions of every sort of animal and insect there, including, say, butterflies.
“We actually have a remarkably boring selection of wildlife in Britain, so the reality of a nation of wildlife lovers [there] is something that I can’t explain,” Goulson says.