A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson

Review published on June 15, 2015.Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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In 2003 Dave Goulson, a University of Sussex biology professor and the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, acquired Chez Nauche, a derelict property in rural France. Ever since, he has been engaged in the attempt to return the farm to a state of nature, cultivating traditional meadow plants and creating a pond – the most important thing home gardeners can do to encourage wildlife. Under the bemused eyes of his French neighbours, he has conducted several decade-long studies on animal behaviour and kept close records of all the species he meets, including butterflies, dragonflies, newts and an elusive beech marten.

As Goulson did in his 2013 book about bees, A Sting in the Tale, he treats readers like friends he is taking on a gentle tour to have everyday encounters with nature: “Let me take you for a stroll. We’ll start at the top of the drive, to the north of the house, by the big horse-chestnut tree.” This book exemplifies what popular science writing should be. It manages to make even flies and beetles interesting to laymen with no entomological inclinations. “Ugly or beautiful, it is the little creatures that make the world go round,” Goulson persuasively insists. “We should celebrate and appreciate them in all their wonderful diversity.”

By incorporating details of his own academic research as well as projects he’s overseen, Goulson makes science sound exciting at whatever level. He and a student conducted a survey of fly breeding habits at a landfill in Portsmouth; his PhD was on the effects of spottiness in Meadow Brown butterflies; and during a field school in the Swiss Alps, a student learned that bees consistently ‘rob’ flowers (chewing a hole in the side and taking the pollen that way) on the same side by following their peers. However, scientific discovery is not the sole preserve of academics; Goulson believes that “almost anyone can discover something interesting and new, if they simply take the time to observe nature carefully.”

Some of the most amusing chapters are about the sexual habits of insects and plants. “Sex in insects is fraught with conflict,” Goulson divulges. “A meadow in summer is a seething mass of sexual adverts, courting couples, brutal rejections, conquests and copulation, a mad rush to reproduce and ensure there are offspring to carry on the line when the season ends.” Who knew that plants – specifically, campions – could contract STDs? Smut, an appropriately named parasitic fungus, invades a campion down to the roots so that it produces spores.

The low-key, humorous anecdotes are reminiscent of the writings of Gerald Durrell, but – like Durrell – Goulson has a serious environmental agenda, which comes to the forefront in Part III. “Every living thing in the meadow – be it beautiful, mundane, gruesome or obscure – is linked to everything else, by just a few degrees of separation,” he explains, as he reveals that neonicotinoid pesticides have a wider effect than we may ever know. Alas, the final trio of chapters – on the disappearance of bees, inbreeding in island communities and the disproportionate effect humans have on the planet – feel like a tacked-on ending. Other recent books, such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, may well be more effective because they have a more targeted environmental approach.

A Buzz in the Meadow is less focused than A Sting in the Tale, and also repeats some of the material, such as the chapter on bees disappearing, along with an exact quote from E.O. Wilson – though, granted, it’s a good one: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” The main draw, as always, is Goulson’s infectious enthusiasm and excellent explanations of science. Surely it is enough for him to simply inspire passion for nature. As the Chinese proverb goes, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now…”

 

Rebecca Foster

A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson is published in pbk by Vintage in April 2015

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