Get Your Buzz On…

Author:  Dave Goulson

sting in the tale cover image (200x300)Once in a while, I’m fortunate to come across a book that presents a remarkably attentive look at some neglected part of the natural world.  It may be obvious that nature contains myriad little nooks that hide all sorts of potentially fascinating stories, but it’s not very often that someone writes a good book about one.  A Sting in the Tale is just such a book.  Written by British biology professor Dave Goulson, it reveals the intriguing world of the bumblebee, that quietly working, frequently overlooked denizen of flower gardens everywhere.

Closely related to the more famous honey bee, bumblebees practice a similar lifestyle, although on a much smaller scale.  Collecting nectar and pollen for their brood, often nested in an abandoned mouse hole in the ground, the queen and her few dozen workers labor all summer to raise new queens and drones for the fall.  After mating, the new queens find a safe spot in the dirt or duff to spend the winter, waiting for the first flowers of spring to appear before emerging and starting the cycle all over again.

A buff-tailed bumblebee, hard at work.

A buff-tailed bumblebee, hard at work.


Serving as the native pollinators throughout the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, bumblebees are vitally important for countless varieties of flowering plants, many of which aren’t visited by introduced honey bees.  From the great yellow bumblebee to the red-shanked carder bumblebee, Goulson discusses many of the more than 250 species of the genus Bombus, focusing primarily on the British Isles and France.  He includes an interesting chapter on cuckoo bumblebees, which covertly lay their eggs in the nests of other bumblebee species, allowing the victims of the ruse to perform all the hard work involved in brood rearing.  Not just vital for ecological diversity, bumblebees are also important agriculturally.  Making use of their ability to vibrate flowers with an energetic buzz, bumblebees are particularly adept at pollinating tomato and pepper plants and the author describes how the commercial greenhouse use of the buff-tailed bumblebee has started to blossom.


An early bumblebee comes in for a landing.

An early bumblebee comes in for a landing.

Writing in an engaging and light-hearted manner, the author includes much about his unconventional, wildlife-filled upbringing in England, as well as interesting details about his subsequent education and bumblebee research efforts.  Despite the casual style, Goulson includes plenty of material about his many bee experiments, displaying a charming scientific creativity.  Following an extensive discussion concerning the worrisome decline in bumblebee populations worldwide, he concludes the book with the story behind his founding of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a British charitable organization devoted to promoting bumblebee habitat in the United Kingdom. 

In the end, A Sting in the Tale is a fun read for anyone interested in nature, but I think it is particularly appropriate for any young reader with an interest in conservation or the natural sciences.  Goulson’s adept and enthusiastic combination of hard science with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor makes for an entertaining read that was on the short list for the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize.  I recommend it highly. 

— D. Driftless

bee photos by P7r7 and Bernie Kohl

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