Insects are not everyone’s cup of tea. But British writer David Goulson considers them among the most fascinating creatures in the world. His new book, A Buzz In The Meadow, tells the story of how he bought a run-down farmhouse in France with an attached field and turned it into a meadow full of wildflowers, brimming with life.
Talking from Sussex University in England where he is a Professor of Biology, he explains how the sex lives of bumblebees make the Borgias look tame; why neonics are wreaking havoc with bee populations; and how not using garden pesticides and planting a few herbs in a flower box can make the world a better place for bees and us.
There’s a famous line in a baseball movie: if you build it, they will come. It’s also true of your farm in France—tell us about your field of dreams.
Twelve years ago, I bought this little farm in the middle of nowhere in rural France. It’s in a region called the Charente which is roughly halfway down France, about 70 miles from the west coast. It was a rundown old house, not habitable by any normal standards, with a 33-acre field of what had been arable wheat, so pretty boring country biologically. Ever since, I’ve been turning it into a wildflower meadow, which isn’t easy. It wouldn’t rival the finest flowery grasslands in the world, but it’s been rewarding to watch it slowly change.
Is this what you’d call re-wilding?
I’m not sure it’s big enough to be a true re-wilding project. I call it restoration. In Europe and North America, we used to have large areas of natural grasslands or, in the case of Europe, semi-natural grasslands: meadows that were grazed and cut for hay but were full of wildflowers. They had been that way for many hundreds and thousands of years. But we pretty much destroyed them all. In Britain, about 98 percent of them were destroyed in the 20th century. We plowed them up, we poured fertilizers on them, so today they’ve become a really rare habitat. The animals associated with them, like bumblebees and butterflies, have also become correspondingly rare. What I was trying to do was recreate one of these flowering meadows we used to have so many of.
Most books by Brits about moving to France are filled with stories about charming villagers, crispy baguettes and sex. Yours is devoted to creatures most of us think of as pests. Why are you such a fan of insects?
To be fair, there is quite a bit of sex in the book, but it doesn’t involve humans [Laughs]. Why am I fond of insects? I was just born that way. All kids like to catch creepy crawlies and put them in jam jars, or go pond-dipping. I just carried on. They are such fascinating, wonderful creatures. Three quarters of life on earth, in terms of species, is insects, and in terms of individuals they massively outnumber everything else. People tend to be drawn to bigger, perhaps more charismatic things, like tigers and pandas or polar bears. There are fewer people that really care for the insects and their relatives. Yet they’re really important. They do far more for us than polar bears, which don’t really do a fat lot. Bees, which are my specialty, pollinate by weight, about one third of all the food we eat and about three quarters of all the crops we grow. That’s a tangible way in which our wellbeing depends on these little creatures.
I find it fascinating that insects evolve so quickly. How is it that insects can evolve to become resistant to insecticides within a few life cycles?
It comes down to the number of them and the rate of generation. Insects have the advantage over larger creatures in that there can be countless billions of them, particularly when we’re talking about pest insects, like flies or aphids. One or two individuals are likely to be lurking in the population that have a bit of resistance to any particular chemical. So the first time you use a new pesticide it might kill 99.999 percent of the flies. But that .001 percent that survives is a tiny bit more resistant. They then have lots of offspring, you spray again, and this time you don’t get 99.999 percent, you get rid of only 95.999 percent because the flies are a little more resistant.
So it goes on. And given that their generation time can be as short as a couple of weeks, in a few months you can go from having a pesticide that works jolly well to one that doesn’t really do anything at all.
You and other scientists have discovered that neonics are causing bees to disappear. Explain?
Neonics, as they’re known for short, are synthetic relatives of nicotine that were introduced in the 1990’s and proved very popular. They took over as the insecticide of choice in pretty much any crop around the world. One of their advantages is they’re systemic. So, once you get them into a plant they spread through the plant and protect all of it.
But there’s a downside, which is that they also get into the pollen and the nectar and get eaten by bees. Things like oilseed rape or sunflowers, which are visited by bees, are still being treated with these chemicals in many countries. Even a miniscule dose will kill a bee and fantastically tiny doses will leave them confused and dazed and unable to navigate and collect food. There’s pretty convincing evidence that the use of these chemicals is adding to the woes our bees are already suffering from.
In 2013, a moratorium on neonics was passed by the EU. Have bee populations been able to rebound in those regions? Why do countries like Brazil and the US continue to use these dangerous chemicals?
Why indeed? It’s very controversial, not least because the companies that produce them make a lot of money from it. Sales of neonics are about $3 billion a year, so they’re very keen to maintain their chemicals are harmless to the environment.
But I and the very large majority of scientists, and the large majority of evidence suggests otherwise. A lot of political lobbying goes on and thus far there’s been no major move in North America, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have announced that they’re going to ban all neonics on land they control. The state of Ontario just recently announced that they’re going to bring in legislation that will reduce their use by 80 per cent within a couple of years. Lots of governments are acting but some are faster than others.
It’s also worth flagging up that we don’t have a good national or international monitoring program for wild bees. So, even if bee populations did start to increase, we don’t have a good scheme in place to measure it.
You deploy some ingenious scientific methods in your studies–tell us about how you use Blu-Tack?
[Laughs] Long, long ago, when I was a young post-doctoral student, I got a job for a few months to study deathwatch beetles. They are funny, little, rather drab brown beetles that spend most of their life — and it’s a very long life — as grubs burrowing through timbers in old buildings and dead trees.
They can spend ten years doing that before they eventually emerge in the spring as a small, brown, bullet-shaped beetle. They’re virtually blind and they wander around trying to find a mate by banging their heads against the timber, making this little drumming noise. If the male stumbles into the female, he realizes he’s has a bit of luck, jumps on her back and head butts her a few times, which is presumably some sort of strange courtship. But he can’t mate with her unless she agrees by extruding her genitalia from beneath her shell.
I noticed that very often the females weren’t very impressed and would ignore a male. Small males particularly seemed to rarely have much luck. I found that if I made them heavier with a simple and rather crude mechanism of sticking a bit of Blu-Tack on the back of the male, the female would be fooled into thinking that this is a strapping, great male that jumped on top. So, Blu-Tack can be a rather useful sexual aid in undersized, deathwatch beetles, it turns out [Laughs].
You wrote about bumblebees in your last book “A Sting in the Tale.” What is it about the humble bumble that fascinates you so much?
They are very endearing. The clue is in the name. They have this bumbling, slightly incompetent air about them. They bump into flowers and buzz around with this gentle drone. They’re pretty, they’re furry, and they’re very big for insects.
But once you start studying them you realize they’re far from bumbling. They have all sorts of clever tricks and abilities. They can navigate over long distances from patches of flowers to their nests. They can detect the earth’s magnetic field. They can see ultraviolet light.
They also have very complicated social lives. What goes on underground in their nests makes the Borgia’s look tame [Laughs]. The queen tries to keep control at all costs and if she catches any of her daughters laying eggs, which would be her grandsons, she eats them and then beats up her daughters. Often, they will often gang up on their mother and kill the queen. It’s not the most harmonious society, it has to be said.
What transformations have you seen on your plot in France?
It’s really interesting to watch. Every year I find a few new plant species. They slowly recolonize, some from seeds that were in the soil already, others carried in bird droppings or by the wind. So gradually this field that was a monoculture crop a decade ago, now has over 100 species of wildflowers. And with every plant species that arrives you get more insects. I’ve now got almost as many species of butterflies in that one meadow as have been recorded in the whole of the British Isles. There’s larger stuff too, like snakes and owls.
Not everyone can afford 30 acres in France. What can the rest of us do in our backyards to make a difference?
The nice thing with bees is that everyone can do something to help them. Even if you have a tiny garden or just a window box, you can plant a few bee-friendly flowers. My university website has a long list. Things like garden herbs, which are useful for cooking as well, like thyme, marjoram and rosemary. If you plant a few of those, even in the middle of a city, bees will turn up and start feeding. One of the big problems bees have is that there just isn’t enough food these days. So, if everyone around the world planted a few bee-friendly plants in their gardens, our cities would become good places for bees to live in.
The second thing I would urge is not to use pesticides in your garden. There’s a big debate about pesticide use in farming. But I don’t think there’s any debate about their use in gardens. You don’t need them. You can grow fruit and veg and flowers really well without blitzing them with pesticides. Don’t buy them, don’t spray them, and you’ll be doing a little thing to help. And if everyone did a little thing it would become a big thing.