When the plight of bees hit the headlines, I began paying more attention to the bees around me. And the more I looked, the more intrigued I became, spending much of my time sitting on a bucket near a nest I’d discovered, photographing the comings and goings of its resident bumblebees. What was it like in there, I wondered? How did those unfurling tongues, probing antennae and pollen baskets function? And what could we do to help this threatened insect that does so much for us?
My search led me to the door – and garden – of Professor Dave Goulson, a leading authority on bumblebees, who teaches at the University of Stirling. Dave founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, has written the most comprehensive book on bee behaviour and ecology, and is part of a team that researched neonicotinoid insecticides, used on crops and gardens.
Ground-breaking experiments – undertaken for the first time in the field rather than laboratories – on bumblebees at Stirling and on honeybees in Avignon, France, revealed that these compounds interfered with their ability to navigate their way home. Unable to bring food back to the nest, the colonies starved, producing a staggering 85% fewer new queens.
Without bumblebees, you would get a poor harvest from many crops, including runner beans, raspberries, strawberries and pumpkins. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees will forage in the cold and wet, and in a bad spring are invaluable for an early crop such as apples.
Some species, having longer tongues, are the only pollinators for broad beans. Rare orchids, foxgloves and many other wildflowers are also exclusively pollinated by bumblebees, and these flowers provide food and shelter for numerous other insects, small mammals and birds.
‘If these long-tongued bumblebees disappear,’ Dave says, ‘nothing can replace them.’ But being so good at what they do has its drawbacks. Commercially reared colonies used by tomato and cucumber growers in their vast glasshouses are sometimes infested with diseases or parasites and escapees have infected wild bee populations with disastrous results.
Having completed a biology degree at Oxford and a PhD in butterfly ecology, Dave decided to make bumblebees the focus of his life’s work.
After ten years of research, he and his colleagues had a pretty good idea why many species were in decline: modern agricultural practice and the loss of hedgerows. But what could be done? Frustrated by the way scientists were sounding the alarm in papers that were being read only by other scientists, he set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to raise public awareness and translate this knowledge into action.
Extracted from Vivian Russell's article in the August 2012 issue of Saga Magazine.
Find out more: visit bumblebeeconservation.org
Bumblebees: Their Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation by Dave Goulson (OUP, £34.95).
Find out how you can help bumblebees.