Bee Quest by Dave Goulson

Review published on May 17, 2017.

There is nothing better than sitting in the garden in the summer sun with a glass of something cold, watching the bees buzz between flowers. The honey bee moves quickly collecting nectar, and then there are the bumble bees. They look like they shouldn’t be able to fly as they float lazily between the flowers. I thought that there were only one or two species of bumble bee, but it turns out there are many more than that. The question is how many are left and how many could self-confessed insect nut, Dave Goulson, find?

Goulson begins at Salisbury Plain, a large patch of chalk downland in the south-west, which thanks to the British army, has remained untouched by modern industrial farming methods. Provided you remember to avoid the unexploded ordinance, this is one of the best places to find the shrill carder and other rarer bumble bees as well as many other invertebrates, pond shrimp and the fantastically named Great Bustard. The promise of finding a Yellow Armpit bee in Eastern Europe prompts a trip to Poland. The tiny island of Barra is surrounded by crystal clear blue seas and startlingly white beaches; the look is Caribbean, but as this is just off the west coast of Scotland, the temperatures didn’t really match, but this is where the Great Yellow is still left.

Trips further afield to Patagonia, Ecuador and California in search of orchid bees, the Franklin and Giant Golden add a touch of exotica to the search for the rear and unusual before Goulson is brought back to earth with two visits to a brownfield site on the Thames estuary, one official, and another that was, er, less official shall we say. I really enjoyed reading about the re-wilding of Knepp Castle. The changes that Sir Charles Burrell has made to his estate have been as dramatic as they have been beneficial for the local environment.

Goulson has written his best book yet, his writing keeps getting better and his infectious enthusiasm for his furry subjects is catching. Not only is it a wonderful read, but it is a prescient warning of our meddling with the environment. Drenching the land in insecticides is fundamentally wrong; in California, Goulson saw that a small amount of land set aside for nature could actually improve yields, with none of the detrimental effects of chemical addition. Honeybees are thought to be the biggest pollinators, but it was found that bumble bees are equally good, you wouldn’t have tomatoes without them for example. If you are a fan of natural history books then this is a necessary addition. Only two minor flaws, it could have done with some photos and it wasn’t long enough!

Paul Cheney 5/4

Bee Quest by Dave Goulson
Jonathan Cape 9781911214137 hbk Apr 2017

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