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Authors: Dave Goulson

A Sting in the Tale


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Title Page

Copyright Notice



1. The Short-haired Bumblebee

2. The Bumblebee Year

3. The Hot-blooded Bumblebee

4. A Brief History of Bees

5. Finding the Way Home

6. Comfrey and Smelly Feet

7. Tasmanian Devils

8. Quinn and Toby the Bumblebee Sniffer Dogs

9. Bee Wars

10. Cuckoo Bumblebees

11. Bee Enemies

12. The Birds and the Bees

13. Does Size Matter?

14. Ketchup and Turkish Immigrants

15. Chez Les Bourdons

16. A Charity Just for Bumblebees

17. Return of the Queen


Appendix: Common and Latin Names of British Bumblebees



About the Author



For Seth, my youngest son.

May there always be a flowery meadow

and the sight and sound of buzzing bees for him to enjoy.


My interest in bumblebees and other insects dates back to the age of seven, when my family and I moved from a small semi-detached house on the edge of Birmingham's urban sprawl to a little village called Edgmond in Shropshire. My father had been brought up close by in the market town of Newport and, being a schoolteacher, he was keen that his two sons should get a good education. Newport had, and still has, a fine grammar school, the school which my father had attended and to which he hoped my brother and I would go, provided we could pass the entrance exam.

At seven I didn't much care about school, but I loved our new house. In hindsight it was rather ugly, with a rash of stone cladding and a hideous flat-roofed extension, but small boys don't worry about such things. The house was detached, and it had a much bigger garden than I was used to. There were large flower borders, apple and damson trees, a pond, two ancient wooden sheds full of cobwebs and vast spiders which gave me the willies, and enough room for my father to grow a fine patch of vegetables. Better still, the house was opposite open countryside. I had only to cross the village high street and jump a stone wall, and I was in a huge field, with a magnificent horse chestnut tree to climb. A grumpy dappled grey horse often stood in the tree's shade on hot summer's days, twitching its tail at the flies, and was prone to biting and kicking. In spring, the tree would teem with bumblebees visiting its pyramids of cream and pink flowers. The supply of bees meant that the flowers turned into plentiful conkers in late summer with which my friends and I would bomb passers-by while hidden in the dense green canopy of the treetop.

My father wasn't too interested in flowers; he allowed me to plant what I liked, so I put in lavender, buddleia and catmint to attract bumblebees and butterflies. I trained a honeysuckle up one of the old sheds to feed moths, and planted a male pussy willow to provide the bees with early spring food. I built a large rockery out of old bricks which I scavenged from a dilapidated farm building across the fields, carrying them home in a knapsack. I left spaces at the bottom for the bumblebees to nest in, and planted the top with bird's-foot trefoil to provide flowers for bees and tasty leaves for caterpillars of the common blue butterfly. I dug a bigger pond, and stocked it with newts, sticklebacks and all manner of other beasts from the local canal.

I have no idea where this all came from. My father was a history teacher who, to this day, can recite the chronology of English monarchs since William the Conqueror, with dates, and discern the age of a building from the shape of its windows or finials. Give him a bumblebee, however, and he hasn't a clue (although I have tried to educate him). My mother was a sports teacher, great with a rounders bat or a tennis racquet and fiercely competitive, but with no interest whatsoever in nature. She was not at all keen on creepy-crawlies of any description, and absolutely terrified of spiders. So I had to teach myself, using a range of identification books and natural history guides that my parents happily supplied me with; my father loved books of any sort.

The only adult whom I can recall actively encouraging my interests was a primary school teacher, the formidable Miss Scott. She was short and stocky, with thick brown curly hair and, having a short fuse, was prone to barking commands and reprimands. My classmates and I were initially terrified – our previous teachers had been the sweet, gentle types that one imagines primary schoolteachers to be. But before long we realised that there was a merry glint in her eye, and that the stern front she presented was just that: a front. What is more, she loved to take us out looking for beasts and bugs; she showed us how to identify trees from the leaves, and how to place pitfall traps to catch beetles. She was particularly keen on pond-dipping. In my memory it seems that we went pond-dipping in the local canal every day (and it was always sunny). Our classroom soon filled with jam jars containing tadpoles, pond-skaters, ferocious dragonfly larvae, great diving beetles, millipedes, spiders and much else besides. The dragonfly larva was my particular favourite – this ugly, dumpy brown creature would lurk motionless at the bottom of the jar, waiting to be fed. Each day we would drop in a tadpole or a worm and watch, ghoulishly, as the dragonfly larva's face unfolded into telescopic pincers with which it snatched and devoured its unsuspecting prey.

By the following spring, my efforts to encourage wildlife in the garden were really beginning to pay off. I noticed huge queen bumblebees, fresh from hibernation, feeding on the pussy willow and lungwort. These bees had been asleep for seven months or so, since the previous July, so the spring feast I had grown for them was particularly welcome. Once satiated, the queens would fly low over the ground, searching for a suitable hole in which to nest. I noticed a white-tailed bumblebee queen investigating the space under one of the garden sheds, and she must have liked it, for weeks later her smaller workers appeared, flying out to gather food and coming back, half an hour later, with enormous balls of bright yellow pollen on their legs. I sat and watched them for hours, and noticed the nest traffic becoming busier and busier as the season went on and the number of workers rapidly grew. No bees ever showed any interest in nesting in my purpose-made bumblebee nest chambers beneath the rockery.

As summer approached, the garden began to swarm with wildlife. The buddleia was covered with small tortoiseshells, peacock butterflies, large and small whites, hoverflies and bumblebees. Pond-skaters and whirligig beetles fought territorial battles on the surface of my new pond, and an emperor dragonfly took up residence, perching on a tall purple loosestrife growing in the pond margin. It would zoom out to catch other flying insects to eat, snatching them mid-air with its bristly legs, and chase away any other dragonflies that tried to move in on its patch. I remain to this day amazed at how quickly wildlife appears in a garden if given just a little encouragement.

On one occasion, after a heavy summer rainstorm, I found a number of bedraggled bumblebees clinging to my buddleia, and decided to dry them out. Unfortunately for the bees I was, perhaps, a bit too young to have a good grasp of the practicalities. With hindsight, finding my mum's hairdryer and giving them a gentle blow-dry might have been the most sensible option. Instead, I laid the torpid bees on the hotplate of the electric cooker, covered them in a layer of tissue paper, and turned the hotplate on to low. Being young I got bored of waiting for them to warm up and wandered off to feed my vicious little gerbils. Sadly, my attention did not return to the bees until I noticed the smoke. The tissue paper had caught fire and the poor bees had been frazzled. I felt terrible. My first foray into bumblebee conservation was a catastrophic disaster. This did not bode well for the future – but at least I had learned that there is an upper temperature limit beyond which bumblebees are not happy. As we shall see later, a similar principle explains why there are few bumblebees in Spain.

I was an avid fan of Gerald Durrell's books, particularly those about his childhood growing up in Corfu, collecting all sorts of exciting animals and keeping them in his bedroom. He had owls, snakes and turtles – and, what is more, he never had to go to school (he was taught at home by an eccentric tutor who was more interested in swordfighting than algebra). He even had a donkey to carry all his collecting nets and jam jars. Deeply envious, I did my best to follow in his footsteps, making do with the slightly more mundane fauna of Shropshire. I badgered my poor parents into letting me keep an array of pets, starting with guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters and mice. My brother and I mercilessly wore our parents down until they agreed to let us have a dog, a lovely black Labrador-cross puppy that, with a total failure of imagination, we named Spot after the white spot on her back. As she grew, this spot rapidly disappeared, which made her name the cause of occasional confusion. Nonetheless, she was an incredibly soft and tolerant dog who put up with our endless teasing and was a great companion in our romps in the countryside.

After the novelty of my traditional pets wore off, I moved on to more exotic tropical fish, leopard frogs, red-eared terrapins, garter snakes and anolis lizards. I had my own bedroom with a view of the chestnut tree, and I filled this room with home-made boxes and tanks from which all but the most dim-witted creatures invariably escaped. My garter snakes spent more time out of their tank than in it. In desperation I tried using sticky tape to hold the lid down, with unfortunate consequences. One of the snakes still managed to push up the lid, but then became stuck to the tape and in its attempts to disentangle itself became hopelessly wrapped up in a ball of tape; it took me hours to tease it apart. I resigned myself to regular hunts for escapees, and it is quite possible that a garter snake is, to this day, living somewhere under the floorboards of that house.

For one birthday, I was given a small aviary for the garden which I stocked with budgerigars and a pair of beautiful Chinese painted quails. As an adult I find keeping birds in cages cruel (especially large parrots in small cages indoors) but as a boy I wasn't worried by such sensibilities. I loved sitting in the aviary with the birds flying about my head. Before long the budgies started to breed, and I was able to supplement my pocket money by selling the surplus stock (the quails also laid plenty of eggs but they never seemed to hatch). Baby budgies are spectacularly ugly bald creatures with oversized heads. Normally they rapidly grow feathers and become rather more cute, but one poor chick seemed unable to, and as it grew remained almost entirely bald. Eventually it attempted to fledge from the nest and leapt out, falling like a stone to the floor. Undeterred, it clambered back up the netting using its beak and feet and joined the other budgies on the highest perch. Every now and then the poor little mite would gamely hurl itself into the air, flapping its tiny pink arms, and thud once again to the floor. It lived for six months or so but stood little chance when winter arrived.

My charges had a worryingly high mortality rate. One Sunday morning, my mother was in the kitchen rustling up one of her legendary pies (she is an excellent but very traditional cook, always serving up meaty dishes with potatoes and vegetables, followed by a hefty hot pudding such as a fruit crumble or spotted dick with custard). I must have been at a loose end and getting in her way, so she pointed out that the fish tank in my bedroom was in dire need of a clean – the glass had become green with algae, so that the fish were barely visible. A little while later I was dutifully scrubbing the glass inside the tank, my arm immersed in the warm water, when my mother called up, ‘Dave … What's burning? You aren't lighting matches again are you?' Before starting to scrub, I had lifted out the electric heater, encased in its glass waterproof tube, and laid it on a wooden cupboard to one side. It hadn't occurred to me to unplug it, and not being in water it had become hot and was burning into the top of the cupboard. (I never fathomed how my mother was able to smell burning so quickly and from such a long way away.) Without thinking, I lifted the heater by its cable and tossed it into the tank. Of course, very hot glass and cool water are not an ideal combination, and the heater tube shattered with a bang, exposing the electrical element to the water and electrocuting all of my fish. They quivered and spasmed in the water (thankfully I didn't shove my hand in the tank to pull the heater back out), and by the time I had pulled the plug from the socket they were all very much dead.

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