Bumbles in the willows

Last year around this time I wrote a post about bumble bees swarming high up in the crown of a pussy willow (Salix caprea, aka goat willow). I knew nothing. Nothing. Since that time I have read Dave Goulson’s excellent A Sting in the Tale which, if nothing else, has served to give me some appreciation of the depths of my ignorance.

These are queen bumbles, newly waked from hibernation from which they emerge famished, having used up all their stored energy resources over winter. The female pussy willow is one of the few sources of rich nectar at this time of year, and must be a welcome sight indeed to the nearly knackered queenies. No wonder so many of them descend upon each tree, they must be gasping, the poor things. So, drink up ladies. Ovaries to swell, nesting burrows to find, and eggs to lay. Fortunately for the shagged out queens, no energy will need to be spent upon the tiresome business of mating – that was all done before the winter, the males now less than a distant memory, their sperm being stored within the body of the queen. It will be needed to fertilize eggs to produce daughters, who will become the first generation of worker bees, and later, the next generation of queens. Male bees are produced from unfertilised eggs, their only function in life being to mate. It’s not a massively interesting life – the tend to hang around in groups on the top of hills, waiting for a lady to arrive – but they have it better than the male honeybee. The last moments of a sexually successful male honeybee are somewhat dramatic, involving mid-flight sex, exploding genitals, and death. Way to go, chaps.

But all that is months away. Spring is newly arrived – perhaps a week or two late this year – and the willows are abuzz once more.

More sobering is the revelation that the government’s own research into the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees does not support the conclusions that they drew from it at the time. A recent article in The Guardian describes how Dave Goulson has taken another look at the study from 2012, finding that the evidence gathered strongly suggests a negative correlation between the presence of common neonicotinoids and the number of queen bees. You can read the full piece here; I was particularly drawn to the following quote from Professor Goulson,

“The conclusions (the government) come to seem to be completely contrary to their own results section.

“They find that 100% of the time there is a negative relationship between how much pesticides were found in the nest and how well the nest performed, and they go on to conclude that the study shows that there isn’t a significant effect of pesticides on bee colonies. It doesn’t add up.”

Even a spokesman from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), who carried out the research, concurs that the wrong conclusions were drawn.

You often hear both scientists and politicians speaking of the importance of good, reasearch-based data upon which to base policy decisions. When the research is conducted by individuals and organisations manifestly less than impartial to the outcome, the studies are not exposed to the rigours of peer review and the resulting data are apparently wilfully misinterpreted, one could be forgiven for wondering how well this process is working.

Fireside reading

It’s blowing a gale outside. The first week back in the new year, and there’s been a fair amount of weather to contend with. Frozen toes first thing on Wednesday, soaked through to the skin on Thursday morning, and throughly windswept by the start of the weekend. Not that I’m really complaining; while I’ll admit that I’d prefer my waterproofs to be a little more resistant to the very worst of the weather, the utter drubbing I got earlier in the week provided the perfect excuse to spend an extended lunch time reading by the fire with a hot toddy (Advocaat, two glugs; Scotch in a similar quantity; a teaspoon of honey and hot water to taste – purely medicinal, you understand, though it would be wise to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery for the rest of the day). Thank heaven for seed catalogues and the seemingly ever-increasing pile of gardening literature into which I’d intended to make larger inroads over Christmas; if the weather continues to throw the odd ghastly spell at us – and there’s no reason to except that it won’t – I’m sure this won’t be the last time I find myself in need of some wet weather reading matter.

The book I’ve just finished is Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees. I’ve been meaning to read it in full ever since hearing extracts from it on the radio some time ago, and am delighted that I made time for it. If you’ve not read it, I would thoroughly recommend it as not only an informative and eye-opening read, but also in places a decidedly funny one, not least in the opening section where the author describes the gruesome results of his childhood experiements with taxidermy and bee husbandry – the latter well-meaning but, alas, doomed. He’s come on a bit since then – now Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex, and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), he gives a fascinating account of his work in conversation with Jim Al-Khalili on this episode of Radio 4’s The Life Scientific.

Two things strike me forcefully as a result of reading this book. Firstly, a career in biological sciences sounds rather fun – why did noone tell me this when I was at school?* And secondly, I really knew hardly anything about bumblebees, other than that they are furry, and that they’re related to wasps and ants. The list of insights into these splendid creatures that I’ve gained from this book is somewhat lengthy, but I don’t think I’ll be revealing any spoilers if I mention a few here by way of example: for instance, I had no idea that bumbles don’t die if they sting you (honeybees generally do), that tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and chillies are all pollinated by bumblebees, and that there is a huge commercial market for mass-reared bumblebees for that very purpose – an international market with little regulation, which threatens to undermine the genetic integrity of domestic bees, and has the potential to spread diseases and to adversely impact native ecosystems. I had also forgotten that dumbledore is the old country name for a bumblebee (which puts Harry Potter in a new light).

It’s a book that delights, with its detailed and affectionate descriptions of a charming and vital creature, but also delivers a sobering message... almost depressing in its depiction of yet another intricate and beautiful aspect of the natural world which the combined forces of liberal economics and globalisation are seeking to commodify, displaying scant regard to the long term impact, or even passing reference to the precautionary principle. But there is some hope too in the final chapters. These deal with the setting up of the BBCT and the project to repatriate the short-haired bumblebee to the UK (the result uncertain at the time of the book’s publication, but apparently a success according to the website of the Short-haird Bumblebee Project at www.bumblebeereintroduction.org).

One of those books that inspire you to do something. I toddled off and joined the BBCT, and am eagerly awaiting the first signs of spring when the young queens will awaken and gather in numbers high in the branches of the pussy willows, the air thrumming with the sound of excited, hungry bumbles. I could tell you about winter active bees, and how the buff-tailed bumblebee has recently started to display a reluctance to go into hibernation, particularly in the South East. I’m becoming a bumble-bore, and unapologetically so.

*I admit, I’ve had my suspicions that this might be the case for a while now, but having been brought up as a young person with an appreciation of The Arts it has come as a bit of a revelation that it’s quite possible to have both a career in this field and a sense of humour. I’m not sure who to blame for making the subject seem so dry and tedious at the time, but I’m sure it was due to the negligence of various adults into whose care my education had been entrusted, and nothing at all to do with my continual obsession with turning on the science lab gas taps and carving rude messages into the benches, when I should have been applying myself to my lessons. Prof Goulson, with his cheery manner and accounts of bee hunting expeditions on the other side of the world, leaves me in little doubt that one could do a lot worse than embark upon a career as an entomologist. Granted, funding’s an ever-present pain in the arse, but continuity and security of income is scarcely a subject limited to a scientific career. In fact, if I had my time again...