Bumblebees are not something that grab the attention. Unless you are unlucky enough to be stung by one, they are pretty unimposing creatures. They always just seem to be getting on with their own business buzzing briefly around and then buzzing off again. Perhaps that’s where the phrases “busy as a bee” and “buzz off” come from. I was interested in bumblebees as a child but only during fleeting moments when they flew into view and then enigmatically flew off into the distance again, always impossible to follow.
My interest in bumblebees has been reawakened by a book I was given for Christmas. A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson is is a non-fiction “public engagement in science” type book, that one would naturally assume to be quite boring. But after the first few pages, I was hooked. The narrative progresses steadily not just through the life and plight of these creatures, but also the story of their author, probably the foremost bumblebee expert worldwide. Deliberately avoiding the stuffy and rigid language of scientific articles, Goulson describes his work in crystal clear language that is accessible to all. Perhaps because of this straightforward style his book is wildly popular (for a natural history book at least!), with over 60 enthusiastic 5 star review on Amazon. It seems there is a demand for unpretentious writing about the natural world.
This post is not about the book per se, which for the record is excellent and highly recommended to anyone interested in nature. Instead it’s about how it persuaded me to sign up to the charity that Professor Goulson set up shortly before writing the book: the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT).
Towards the end of the book Goulson has this to say:
Conservation is not something that should be left to others. It is easy to get depressed and despondent at the impending extinctions of the polar bear or the tiger, or at the horrific progress of deforestation in the tropics. Perhaps governments or scientists or organisations such as WWF can do something to help address these situations, but as an individual it is very hard to know where to start - it is all so remote and dauntingly complex.
Yes! I thought. So much of the environmental movement simply feels dis-empowering. Great forces completely beyond your control wreak havoc on biodiversity, the soil and the climate. Other than talking about it, bemoaning the dire situation of the world, paying a monthly subscription to some giant environmental charity and perhaps voting once every four years for politicians who promise perennially to be ‘green’, there is essentially jack shit than anyone can do about it. Environmentalism, at times, is a depressing subject.
Perhaps having subconsciously arrived at this conclusion myself, I developed the philosophy that “sustainability begins at home”. By this I meant that to have a tangible impact on the world, you must start with your immediate sphere of influence: your own life, your family, your friends, your job. When you see changes in these people, or in the conditions of your garden or local park, it can be empowering. This is precisely the point that Goulson seems to be making in the above quote, but he does so far more neatly and clearly than I’ve seen before. What’s great about it is that it’s written by someone who has gone out of their way to empower people to protect the natural, as described in the subsequent sentences:
In contrast [to the top down view of conservation], conserving bumblebees is something anyone can do. A single lavender bush on a patio will attract and feed bumblebees even in the heart of a city. Anyone with a garden can help enormously - plant some comfrey, viper’s bugloss, foxgloves, chives, aquilegia and so on, and you will see the results almost immediately. If you are lucky enough to be a farmer, or a planner in the local council, you can make a world of difference. This is not just about bumblebees, but about creating a future environment for our children to enjoy, where there are still flowers, bees, butterflies and birds, and healthy crops to eat.
With that I was convinced. Goulson’s work on bumblebees goes far beyond concern for a few species. It’s a new approach to environmentalism, one that is exciting, fun and hands-on. This is something I aspire to so clearly had to sign-up to the charity. I wait eagerly for the pack of bumblebee friendly seeds and identification guide to pop through the door.
The book ends on a positive note by pondering: perhaps if we can save a single bee, as is clearly demonstrated in the book, we can save the world.