The Victorians knew that cuddliest of pollinators as the humble bee. We know it as the bumblebee. Look for it when the rugosa rose blooms in spring: The bumblebee can be seen rolling in the pollen-rich blossom like a puppy that’s just been fed. Such behavior might reinforce the idea of this beautiful and gentle insect as bumbling carefree through the garden. In truth, it is a single-minded and steadfast creature, blithe to our presence, intent on gathering both nectar and pollen for the sake of its colony.
The bee dusts itself in pollen and then deftly combs its shaggy coat until the grains form packets, glued together by nectar and stowed for flight on the bee’s hind legs. Those of us who stop to observe this will marvel at the spectacle — the bee brushes its head fastidiously, like a grooming cat. The rustic poet John Clare saw this as a way for the bees “to stroke slumber from their eyes.” More prosaically, in his new book, “A Sting in the Tale,” Dave Goulson observes that “an experienced bee makes this look easy, but it must take quite a bit of practice.” Goulson should know: He is one of Britain’s leading authorities on the genus Bombus and founder of the U.K.’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The smaller golden brown honeybee has become the poster child for the ills of environmental degradation, of harmful pesticides and an industrialized system of agriculture that requires 1 million mobile beehives to pollinate California’s almond crop alone. But the amiable, jolly bumblebee is also in some sort of death spiral, though its plight has not seeped into the public’s consciousness in the way that the honeybee’s has.
In some respects, the bumblebee’s problems are greater. Honeybee colonies may die off, but the honeybee species is a long way from extinction. In contrast, many of the world’s 250 species of bumblebee are in decline or on the brink of extinction, with no keepers to husband them.
The multiple authors of “Bumble Bees of North America” tell us that as many as half the 46 species found in the United States and Canada may be at risk, and several species are known to be in peril. The rusty-patched bumblebee was a common visitor to flowers as recently as the 1980s. But it “has been found at only a few sites in recent years despite targeted searches by dozens of scientists and amateur naturalists,” the authors write. The Franklin bumblebee has not been seen since 2006, and the once widespread American bumblebee is now scarce, as is the Western bumblebee.
The authors outline a number of threats to the bumblebee: habitat loss, climate change, new classes of insecticides and more. The book is a response to the crisis, filled as it is with detailed descriptions of each species, maps of their ranges and photographs. It is a scientific guide that is aimed clearly at serious naturalists, though more casual nature lovers will learn much from it.
Goulson’s book is much more personal and conversational; and, while imparting a great deal of knowledge about bees, it does so through the prism of his experiences as a research biologist in Britain. There, too, bumblebees are in decline. Goulson begins and ends the book with his efforts to repatriate (from New Zealand and Sweden) a species named the short-haired bumblebee, not seen in England since 1988.
As wild bumblebees have declined, their rearing for agricultural purposes has increased. For the first time in history, humans are now husbanding the bumblebee, with unintended environmental consequences. In one chapter, Goulson explains how this bumblebee industry developed. Certain crops, notably the tomato, require big, buzzing insects to shake loose their pollen. The honeybee is too svelte, but the bumblebee is perfect for the task.
Many of the tomatoes you buy in a supermarket are grown in greenhouses, a closed environment in which the grower must find a way to pollinate the tomato blossom. This used to be done by humans with vibrating wands — a labor-intensive and expensive process. Commercially raised bumblebees, delivered in a box, can do the job and have become a boon to tomato growers around the world. (One imagines a morose greenhouse worker sitting in a bar somewhere, explaining that he lost his job to a bee).
Raising bumblebees, apparently, is not easy — in nature, they nest in ground cavities each holding several hundred bees; honeybees, on the other hand, form hives with an average population in the many thousands — and the 30 or so companies that do so work in some secrecy. They have transformed the way tomatoes are raised, selling more than 1 million bumblebee nests annually to the fruit’s growers around the world.
Goulson and others believe that this business has helped spread diseases to wild bee populations, as some of the imported greenhouse pollinators carry diseases and escape to infect local populations. Compounding this problem, he says, is the fact that the commercially reared bumblebees are fed pollen harvested from honeybee hives. Each year, tons of pollen, “almost inevitably contaminated with a range of bee diseases, are shipped into the factories, and there it is fed to bumblebees, which are then despatched all over the world.”
The book is as much Goulson’s story as it is the bee’s. His chapter on finding and buying a dilapidated farm in central France is perhaps the most compelling of his stories. The French real estate agents showed him properties he didn’t want, and an expat British agent seemed to be channeling Basil Fawlty. “He tried to deter us from viewing any of his properties,” Goulson writes, “emphasizing their many failings, but in the end he begrudgingly agreed to show us a couple.” Goulson bought Chez Nauche and its 13 hectares and slowly restored its meadow, which drew bumblebee species that were much rarer in Britain.
I wanted more of this French adventure and wonder if it might have sewn a delicious organizing thread through the whole book. Nevertheless, the account of his meadow reclamation inspires as well as informs. “It is the threat of extinction of large mammals such as tigers or rhinoceros that tends to capture the public’s attention,” Goulson writes, “but arguably it is the loss of the smaller creatures that should give us most concern.”
Most of us cannot directly help the tiger or the rhinoceros, but we can extend a hand to the bumblebee. As Goulson tells us, installing bumblebee nesting boxes in the garden seems to be of little use: One of his graduate students placed 500 nest boxes in various settings over three years; only half a dozen attracted colonies of bumblebees. But the gardener can support this creature by using pesticides carefully, if at all (that means monitoring what your landscaper is doing) and by leaving bumblebee nests alone. “Our gardens provide lots of good places for bumblebees to nest,” Goulter points out. “Old compost heaps, sheds and patios to nest under, rockeries full of cavities and so on.” Most of all, we can feed them by cultivating simple blooms that are rich in pollen and nectar. “The Bumble Bees of North America” lists plants by region that will support bumblebees.
These books may differ greatly in tone and content, but they both reintroduce us to the almost forgotten bee. Charles Darwin knew humble bees as “happy, industrious creatures.” It has fallen to us to keep them that way.
BUMBLEBEES OF NORTH AMERICA
An Identification Guide
By Paul Williams et al.
Princeton Univ. 208 pp. Paperback, $24.95
A STING IN THE TALE
My Adventures with Bumblebees
By Dave Goulson
Picador. 256 pp. $25