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Bee quest, p.1

Bee Quest, page 1


Bee Quest

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Bee Quest



  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Dave Goulson

  Title Page



  1 Salisbury Plain and the Shrill Carder

  2 Benbecula and the Great Yellow Bumblebee

  3 Gorce Mountains and the Yellow Armpit Bee

  4 Patagonia and the Giant Golden Bumblebee

  5 California and Franklin’s Bumblebee

  6 Ecuador and the Battling Bumblebees

  7 Brownfield Rainforests of the Thames Estuary

  8 Knepp Castle and the Forgotten Bees

  Epilogue: Back-garden Bees




  A hunt for the world’s most elusive bees leads Dave Goulson from Salisbury plain to Sussex hedgerows, from Poland to Patagonia. Whether he is tracking great yellow bumblebees in the Hebrides or chasing orchid bees through the Ecuadorian jungle, Dave Goulson’s wit, humour and deep love of nature make him the ideal travelling companion.

  But perhaps Bee Quest is most fascinating when Dave Goulson explores closer to home, amongst the secret places hidden right under our noses: the abandoned industrial estates where great crested newts roam; or the rewilded estate at Knepp Castle, where, with the aid of some hairy, bluebell-eating Tamworth pigs, nightingale song has been heard for the first time in generations.

  This utterly charming book will inspire you to think about the ways in which we are all responsible for the future of our world. Through his scientific expertise and passion for conservation, Goulson shows us nature’s resilience against the odds, and that beauty hides in the most surprising places.


  Dave Goulson studied biology at Oxford University and is now Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex. He has spent the last twenty years studying bumblebees, and has published over 250 scientific articles on their biology. He founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006. He is the author of the Sunday Times bestseller, A Sting in the Tale, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, and A Buzz in the Meadow.


  A Sting in the Tale

  A Buzz in the Meadow


  In Search of Rare Bees

  Dave Goulson

  For Mum & Dad

  Thank you.


  We hiked to the woods, only half a kilometre from the primary school, the kids holding hands in pairs and chattering excitedly. I led the way, toting a selection of beating trays and nets on my shoulder, and their teacher, Mrs Sharkey, fussed and chivvied at the back to keep them all together.

  It was a sunny afternoon in June 2009, near the end of the school term, and I was taking the children of my eldest son Finn’s class at Newton Primary School, Dunblane, on a bug hunt. Dunblane is a lovely little town, nestled at the western end of the Ochil Hills in Central Scotland, with countryside to be found within a short walk in almost any direction. Once we got to the woods, I handed out the nets and other paraphernalia to the eager seven- and eight-year-old kids and showed them how each worked. All of the nets looked large and clumsy in the children’s hands, the butterfly nets being big enough to engulf the smaller children entirely. These kite-shaped nets look easy enough to use, but once a flying insect is caught there is a knack to flicking the end of the net over the frame to trap the creature in a pocket of material and prevent it from flying out again. I showed them how to place a beating tray (a large rectangle of white cloth stretched across a wooden frame) under a low-hanging branch, and then give the branch a good shake to dislodge insects, which tumble, wriggling and scampering in surprise, onto the white sheet. My sweep net demonstration provoked much hilarity – this sturdy white net has to be bashed through long grass, always keeping the mouth of the net facing forwards, which I find is best accomplished by sweeping it from side to side in flowing arcs while stooped forwards, bottom in the air. When doing this I resemble some sort of solo Morris dancer. At the end of the ‘dance’ I gathered up the bag of the net to prevent the insects escaping, and called the kids round to inspect the catch. Opening up a sweep net is always fun – like opening up a Christmas present, one never knows what marvels will be inside. The kids oohed, aahed and urghed as a myriad tiny creatures – ants, spiders, wasps, beetles, flies and caterpillars – flew, crawled and hopped out of the net. I showed them how to capture the smallest, most delicate ones by sucking them up in a pooter.fn1 I dished out a handful of pots each for them to place their captures in, and then the children were off, charging through the under-growth, bashing, sweeping and pooting to their hearts’ content, wide-eyed with excitement. We rolled over rotting logs and mossy rocks to find woodlice, ground beetles and millipedes (always carefully rolling them back afterwards). Every new catch was brought back proudly for me to inspect, from huge red slugs to delicate green lacewings. Shrieks of excitement announced the capture of a huge queen buff-tailed bumblebee, who buzzed loudly in protest. Finn, bless him, couldn’t resist being a bit of a know-it-all and telling the other children what everything was.

  It was chaos, but after an hour or so we had a fantastic collection of creepy-crawlies of all shapes and sizes, all laid out in a selection of pots on one of the beating trays. We sorted them into their family groups, learning the difference between flies and wasps, beetles and true bugs, centipedes and millipedes. I told them a little about their diverse and often peculiar lives: which ones ate dung or leaves or other insects; about the parasitoid wasp that eats caterpillars alive from the inside out; and about the froghopper that spends most of its life hiding in a ball of its own spittle. As we let them go, I encouraged the children to hold some of the larger, more robust creatures – there was a beautiful hawthorn shield bug, bright green and rusty brown, with angular, pointed shoulders, which contentedly ambled from hand to hand until, with a flick of its wings, it suddenly whirred away. A half-grown speckled bush cricket, vivid leaf-green with tiny black spots, short-sightedly felt its way along their hands using its outsized antennae, perhaps four times its own body length. A delicate common red damselfly peered at us cautiously with its protruding eyes, as if unable to believe its luck at being released, before helicoptering away on silent, shimmering wings.

  As I watched the children’s smiling faces, I was reminded of the words of the wise and famous biologist E. O. Wilson, who once said, ‘Every kid has a bug period … I never grew out of mine.’ It is interesting to speculate as to why children are innately fascinated by nature, why they like to collect, be it seashells, feathers, butterflies, pressed flowers, pine cones or bird eggs, and why they love to capture, hold and watch creatures of any and all sorts. I would imagine that in our hunter-gatherer past this curiosity served us well – obviously we needed to build up knowledge of the natural world if we were to survive, particularly as to which animals and plants were dangerous or good to eat, but also so that we could read more subtle signs from nature, interpreting the behaviour of birds that might warn of approaching danger, or indicate the location of water or food. I am often asked where my own early obsession with natural history sprang from, as if I were unusual, but actually I think I was fairly typical – as E. O. Wilson said, almost all of us have a bug period.

  The bigger question is why do the large majority of children grow out of their fascination with bugs and, more broadly, with nature? What happens to the child who, aged eight, watched raptly as a woodlouse crawled over her palm? Sadly, by the time they are teenagers, most react to the buzz or scuttle of an insect with a mix of fear and aggression born of ignorance. As like as not, they will swat the poor creature, stamp on it, or at best shoo it away with panicked hands. What go
es wrong? Why did their childhood delight evaporate, to be replaced by revulsion? I wonder about those kids in Dunblane, now teenagers. Have they become strangers to insects, forgetting that sunny afternoon, and all that they found so fascinating and fun at the time? Have they absorbed the fears of their parents, the absurd overreaction to a spider dangling from the curtain rail or to a wasp at a family picnic? My family and I have moved from Scotland to Sussex in the south of England since then, but Finn tells me that most of his new friends have not the slightest interest in wildlife – they simply do not see the natural world as in any way relevant to them. Their interests tend to focus on football or PlayStation or posting selfies on Instagram. Without the slightest thought, many of them casually throw drinks cans and crisp packets into the hedge on the way home from school. It is not cool to go birdwatching, and they would think that collecting or photographing or breeding butterflies and moths as a hobby was pretty weird and nerdy.

  I would hazard a guess that this change comes about because children get too few opportunities to interact with nature in our modern, urbanised world. Our children will never come to cherish the natural world unless they get to experience it first hand, close up, on a regular basis. They cannot grow to love something that they do not know. If they have never been lucky enough to visit a wildflower meadow in late spring to smell the flowers, hear the bird and insect song and watch the butterflies flit amongst the grass, they probably won’t care much if one is destroyed. If they have never had the chance to clamber about in the dappled light of an ancient, wild wood, to kick their feet through the musty leaf litter and emerald leaves of dog’s mercury, and breathe in the rich, mushroomy odours of decay and growth, then it will be hard for them to understand what appalling sacrilege it is to rip it down and macerate the trees to make chipboard. Nothing I could write here, even if I had the gifts of Shakespeare himself, could truly convey the wonder and beauty of the natural world. Some fabulous nature documentaries have been made in recent decades, enabling us to marvel at all manner of exotic creatures that we are never likely to see, but I do not think that this is enough, though it may be a good start. We need to get kids outside, on their hands and knees, grubbing about with nature. For me, ten minutes with a bush cricket is worth ten hours of watching a television documentary in which birds of paradise perform their exotic mating dance in some faraway tropical forest.

  Sadly, of course, these days few children have the opportunities that E. O. Wilson or I had to allow these interests to develop. More broadly, it seems that children today don’t have the chance to explore and experiment in quite the way that was possible for me growing up in the Seventies in a very rural corner of the English countryside. The majority of the world’s population now reside in cities – in the UK, a staggering 82 per cent of us now live in urban areas – and children are usually not allowed to roam as they once did. From the age of seven I wandered the countryside around my home village, disappearing off with my friends for hours on end without my parents having any idea where I was. We climbed trees, we fished the lakes and rivers, and we built camps in the woods. These days, of course, young children don’t normally get this freedom even if they live in the countryside, for their parents rightly fret over risks from traffic, or less reasonably fear that their child will be abducted by the evil monsters that are imagined to lurk around every corner. It might sound irresponsible of me, but I think children somehow need to be given more chances to explore, to take risks and do foolish, dangerous things from which they can learn. I should know, for during my childhood I did more than my fair share of foolish things, yet I somehow survived.

  My very earliest memories involve insects of one sort or another – somehow they burrowed into my soul when I was very young. Aged five, I found the yellow-and-black hooped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth feeding on the groundsel growing through the cracks of my primary-school playground, and packed far too many of them among the crumbs left in my lunchbox to take home. I collected more groundsel to feed them, and was thrilled when some of them eventually developed into adult moths, weak-flying but beautiful creatures with glossy magenta and black wings (which I learned much later are a warning that they are poisonous, having accumulated the toxins that are supposed to protect the ragwort from being eaten). I collected millipedes, woodlice and beetles from the garden, and the tiny red mites that scurried about on the low concrete wall in front of our house on sunny days, and I kept them all in jam jars, lined up on the windowsill of my bedroom. I guess many of the poor creatures died, but I learned a huge amount, not least from the Oxford Book of Insects that my parents bought me so that I could find out what my catches were. In the evenings, I pored over the watercolour illustrations and made plans for local expeditions in which I imagined that I might find some of the more exotic creatures – great silver water beetles, emperor dragonflies and death’s head hawk moths.

  When I was seven we moved from our small semi-detached house on the edge of Birmingham to the rural village of Edgmond in Shropshire, which provided many more opportunities for creature-hunting. I made school friends who were similarly minded, and we would spend our lunchtimes searching the hawthorn hedges along the edge of the school field for the beautiful caterpillars of the yellow-tail moth, velvet black adorned with a crazy Mohican row of red, black and white tufts of hairs. At weekends we searched for other types of caterpillar, scouring the hedgerows, meadows and copses around our village. With the help of the Observer’s Book of Caterpillars, another gift from my parents, we worked out what each type was as best we could, and found the correct leaves to feed them. I found their specificity intriguing – most moth and butterfly caterpillars will eat just one or perhaps two types of leaf, and will simply starve to death rather than try to eat anything else. A few types are much less fussy – the enormously hairy black and orange caterpillars of the garden tiger would eat almost anything apart from grass.fn2 On one occasion we found a caterpillar of the puss moth feeding on a willow, a fantastic green and black creature which reared up when frightened, and extruded a pair of intimidating red, writhing tentacles from its forked tail. I had to wait nearly a whole year until the following spring before I got to see the adult moth: a splendid, fat-bodied, furry kitten-like animal, its body and wings snow-white speckled with black.

  When I was only seven or eight I began collecting birds’ eggs, something my dad had done himself as a boy. As I recall, almost every boy in my village had a collection (I’ve no idea what the girls did – having no sisters and going to a boys’ grammar school, until the age of about fourteen I was almost completely unaware that girls existed). We vied with each other to find the nests of the more unusual species, and coveted each other’s finds. Once again, the Observer’s series of natural history books was invaluable – I still have my tattered copy of the Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs, nearly fifty years old. I remember finding a blue egg with pale brown speckles lying abandoned on the ground on the slopes of the Long Mynd in south Shropshire, and I convinced myself that it was the egg of a ring ouzel, a spectacularly rare moorland bird that I had never actually seen. My friends were sceptical, and we argued about its identity for days, though with hindsight I’m pretty sure it was just the egg of a blackbird. We learned a huge amount about the natural history of birds in the process, for each species tends to nest in particular places, makes its nest from characteristic materials, and so on. On a couple of occasions we found nests of the long-tailed tit, extraordinarily beautiful spherical constructions woven from spider’s web and soft moss.

  I moved on from this to collecting butterflies, and expanded this to moths, and then beetles, and eventually became fairly expert in identifying them all. My skills in rearing moths and butterflies came in useful, for they enabled me to get perfect, untarnished adults for my collection, but by the age of twelve or so I eventually tired of killing these lovely creatures and began rearing them simply to release back into the wild. In particular, I reared hundreds of peacocks and small tortoiseshells, co
llecting up the young caterpillars from nettle patches and rearing them up in home-made cages where they could not be attacked by the tachinid flies and chalcid wasps that parasitise most of them in the wild. It was a heart-warming experience watching the young adult butterflies tentatively take flight for the first time, their pristine wings freshly dried, fluttering upwards and eventually soaring out of our garden.

  It wasn’t just natural history that captured my youthful attention. When I started secondary school, I quickly came to love science of all types, particularly the pyrotechnics of chemistry and the thrill of danger associated with electricity. My parents gave my elder brother, Chris, and me a chemistry set and, as countless children have before and since, we spent hours heating up random mixtures of chemicals on the small methylated-spirit burner, usually creating nothing but a sticky brown mess and a cloud of noxious smoke. Risking an instant detention or worse, my friends and I would smuggle small pieces of magnesium ribbon out of chemistry classes and delight in setting light to them in the bushes at the bottom of the school playing field during lunch break. They burned so brightly that we had white spots before our eyes through the afternoon lessons. After seeing demonstrations in which our teacher dropped small pieces of sodium or potassium into a sink of water – at which point these highly unstable metals fizzed and banged, sending up spurts of flame and clouds of steam – we longed to get our hands on some, but our unsporting teacher never let them out of his sight and always locked them away in a metal cupboard at the end of lessons.

  Luckily my parents were as tolerant of my early chemistry experiments as they were of my enthusiasm for filling the house with jam jars, cages and tanks full of creatures, although they rarely knew exactly what my friends and I were up to. As we learned a little chemistry, we managed to devise ways to conduct ever-more dangerous and entertaining experiments at home. With my friend Dave (there were five Daves in my class at school, and for boys of my generation it might have been useful if someone had invented a collective noun for groups of us) we worked out how to produce hydrogen and oxygen gas by passing electricity through water. The transformer from my Scalextric set proved to be an invaluable power supply for such experiments, producing a steady twelve volts that was ideal for this. The hydrogen and oxygen could be collected in bottles and the two gases together exploded with deliciously satisfying violence when lit with a match, though the lighting was not without minor risk. I even learned to produce chlorine gas in a complicated experiment on the kitchen worktop that involved passing electricity through domestic bleach; the clouds of brown gas are highly toxic, and the experiment was so unexpectedly successful that I nearly expired before I could turn the apparatus off and get the windows open.

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