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‘A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees’

by Dave Goulson

Picador, 256 pp., $25

If you were asked to make a few observations about bumblebees, would you say they’re furry insects whose wings beat 200 times a second, that their normal temperature is about the same as ours but their metabolism is 75 percent higher than a hummingbird’s? Would you also note that their numbers, like those of honeybees, are dropping drastically? Maybe not, but British biology Professor Dave Goulson, whose childhood love of wildlife morphed into a fascination for bumblebees, has been studying them for a couple of decades, trying to discover what triggered their decline and how to reverse the trend.

His new book, then, is both a whodunit as well as a revealing study of a bug on whom we depend a great deal. While there are roughly 25,000 known species of bees, there are only about 250 of bumblebees. Among all animals, it’s “estimated that one species goes extinct every twenty minutes.” Most are insects, important for pollination and their roles with decomposition processes.

At present, three bumblebee species are thought to have gone extinct. The short-haired bumblebee, once common in the marshes of Kent, disappeared from England but is still found in limited areas of New Zealand. Goulson heads down under, hoping to answer enough questions to reintroduce the species to its old haunts safely.

But finding bumblebees proves difficult, as they hibernate most of the year and locate their nests in odd spots underground, among tree roots, in rockeries, beneath compost heaps … anyplace out of sight. Even when flying, only 300 to 400 workers service a nest, so they’re much harder to detect than honeybees, whose nests can send out tens of thousands of workers.

Goulson takes time off from field work to provide a bumblebee natural history, an overview of how they navigate, and a bit on their varying sizes and designs, which determine which flowers each prefers. He explains learning why bumblebees have smelly feet and how he implemented a sniffer dog project to help locate nests. Another approach was a public survey, which showed many more nests in gardens than agricultural fields stripped of cover and native flowers, information that added to his increasing understanding of habitat loss.

Bumblebees are now grown and sent all over the world to pollinate tomatoes and other crops. Ketchup, Goulson writes, might well be made in “the Netherlands from tomatoes grown in Spain, pollinated by Turkish bees reared in a factory in Slovakia.” He considers what damage such commerce might cause and threats to bee health globally.

There’s good news, though. From work in New Zealand, Scotland and other regions, Goulson believes restoring habitat is a key beginning. He bought a farm in France to test how returning chemically fertilized fields to wild meadows affected bumblebees. He founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

On his own land and, yes, around the Romney Marshes in Kent, restoring a “flower-rich habitat” looks promising. In fact, Goulson writes, any of us could plant lavender or red clover, helping create habitat steppingstones. “Perhaps,” he asks, “if we learn to save a bee today we can save the world tomorrow?”

Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.