Many Americans are aware of the problem of colony collapse among honey bees. It has been quite well documented, partly because it impacts commercial farming, and scientists believe that it is caused by a combination of factors — new pesticides, a new species of mite and the large, monocultural farms themselves, which means that the bees, by the very nature of their single-item diet, are more vulnerable to diseases. “Think of what would happen if you only ate turnips or only ate chocolate all the time,” says scientist Dave Goulson.
Bumblebees are also in danger, and some of their varieties have been nearly wiped out. Goulson, a biology professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, has written “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees” (Picador). He has also set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the hope of, among other aims, reintroducing the short-haired bumblebee, which is now extinct in its native England, though it still exists in New Zealand, since a few breeding pairs were brought there in the 19th century and thrived.
The key, Goulson says, is habitat, and part of what he is trying to do is enlist help in creating more acres of habitat that are bee-friendly. These must have very specific qualities — a combination of wildflowers and plants that the insects find appealing. This means no pesticides, but also no fertilizer, which apparently wildflowers don’t like (the soil becomes too rich for them). Goulson traces bumblebee habitat destruction in Britain to, of all people, Adolf Hitler. When England was under siege by German armies during World War II, he writes, it was almost impossible for the country, which had been importing a considerable amount of food, to get any of those shipments. The government’s call for Victory Gardens meant that every meadow, every pasture, every piece of land that might normally lie fallow began to be cultivated for food crops. And most of it has either remained in cultivation since then or been developed for houses and shopping malls. That means that the rich mix of plants that once sustained 27 species of bumblebee in the U.K. alone is no longer available to them.
“We have really messed things up pretty dramatically in the world,” says Goulson. “Bees are a really obvious example; they actually do stuff for us. And so do lots of other wildlife. If we whittle away at them, in the end we have big problems.”
As for his book, which was a critical and commercial success when it came out in England last year, Goulson says, “I’d been pottering away at writing it for several years.” He is hoping, he says, “to get support for conserving bees: I hope to use that as kind of the first step. All wildlife should be preserved; we don’t have the right to exterminate it. We do depend on all these different things.…In the decomposing rain forest of the Amazon, there are 10 million or so species, and we don’t understand what lots of them do. The environment is important, but people are so detached in so many ways. They are brought up in urban areas and eat processed food in packages. It’s almost forgotten that [processed meat] came from an animal. It really worries me that people don’t understand that we depend on the natural world; they’re so remote from these things.”
What steps should someone take to encourage beneficial insects? “There are lots of things you can do,” he says. “You can plant some wildflowers. You can say to people, ‘Don’t use insecticides in your garden, they’re horribly toxic things, and there’s no need at all for them.’ If there are pests in a garden setting, a ladybird will come and eat them. The parks and green areas managed by town councils can be very unfriendly to wildlife. A study showed how easy it is to raze them over; you can have a patch of wildflowers instead of boring green grass. So badgering your local authority is another option that people can use. And then there’s guerrilla gardening. They sell you what they call seed bombs — you can sprinkle them anywhere there’s a bit of spare soil.…People are obsessed by their neat mown lawns. Those bright green lawns are no good for any kind of wildlife, and nothing lives in them.”
Goulson is creating his own bee and butterfly paradise on a farm he bought 10 years ago in the Charente department of southwestern France. The process is now well along, and the farm is the subject of his next book, “A Buzz in the Meadow,” due out in England in September. He asked his neighbors to cut the grass that grows on his land to use for winter fodder for their goats; the idea is that the grass will leach out the fertilizer that had been spread on the soil before he owned it. His three sons, he says, greatly enjoy the time they spend there each summer, although his wife was less-than-enthusiastic when she first saw the seemingly derelict farm with its falling-down buildings that he and his father had purchased with their savings: “She thought we had made a hideous mistake.
“There’s a lot of wildlife in France, and the larger wildlife tends to be very timid,” Goulson continues. That’s particularly true in the Charente, where certain traditional attitudes still obtain. “If it moves, they shoot it,” he says. “When hunting season starts, it sounds as if war has broken out.”