This frozen spring has cost us the buzz of the English bumblebee
As you may have noticed, it's far too cold for our beloved bumblebees, but here's what to do while we wait...
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Wednesday 03 April 2013
Bumblebees seem to be our second favourite insects, after butterflies; like Boris Johnson, they can do no wrong for most people, being similarly shaggy-haired, rotund, colourful and seemingly friendly. I share these sentiments, so I feel as keenly as the next person the bumblebee withdrawal symptoms that are occasioned by this year’s truly arctic early spring.
Bumblebees are nowhere to be seen at the moment. They are seriously late. Bumblebee colonies die off in the autumn with only the queen surviving – to hibernate through the winter with eggs and sperm inside her – before starting a new colony the following year – so it’s the queens that we see first, big fat things twice the size of the workers, when they emerge. That happens in March or even as early as February. But in 2013, with April nearing the end of its first week, they’re still hunkered down.
At least, I haven’t seen one yet, and I thought I would over Easter, spent in deepest Dorset – but it was the coldest Easter since records began. All the yellow flowers were out, coloured yellow, probably, for the very purpose of attracting the early pollinating insects with queen bumblebees prime candidates: the daffodils resplendent in the villages, the celandines and primroses lighting up the dark lanes, the gorse bushes ablaze behind the shoreline. Yet in the frozen air, nothing was buzzing around them.
I don’t suppose it can be much longer? Can it? But I made up for the lack of them by reading a wonderful book about bumblebees, to be published in three weeks’ time – A Sting In The Tale by Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape). Professor Goulson is not only our national expert on the genus Bombus (the 27 British bumblebee species have all got that in their scientific names) but also the man who founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006 – not least because two of the 27 had gone extinct, and six more were rapidly declining, and he wanted to do something about it.
If most of us do indeed love bumblebees, this is a man who is infatuated. Yet his book is not only enormously informative, but also hugely entertaining: its light touch and constant humour make cutting-edge research a pleasure to read about, whether it concerns navigation, evolution, mating, parasites, the fact that bumblebees have smelly feet which leave traces on a flower, so other bees can tell that it’s just been visited and the nectar’s been grabbed so it’s not worth bothering with – or the even more curious fact that you can train up a bumblebee sniffer dog to sniff out nests (and Professor Goulson and his colleagues did, twice) but in the end, humans can do the job better.
The book’s memorable opening chapter is about the Professor’s early childhood as a wildlife enthusiast, which was accident-prone to a degree – he incinerated some cold-afflicted bumblebees by trying to warm them up on the hot plate of the stove, and electrocuted all his pet fish – but its ultimate purpose is deeply serious, and it contains a grim warning about the industrial breeding, and export, of bumblebees as agricultural pollinators, as this may spread bee diseases across the globe. For anyone interested in the natural world, this is essential reading.
Two other great reads
Two more terrific natural history books have just swum into my ken. The first is Ginkgo, by Peter Crane, the most distinguished recent director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and now Dean of the Yale School of Forestry: a wholly absorbing biography of one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated trees (there’s a famous old ginkgo in Kew itself). Published by Yale University Press on 30 April. The other is Kenya: a Natural History by Stephen Spawls and Glenn Matthews (out now from Bloomsbury), which is a captivating and detailed overview of the wildlife of a country with probably the most diverse range of habitats in Africa.
Cow 'emissions' more damaging to planet than CO2 from cars
Greenham Reach: The families trying to prove that compact, ecological farms can make a living
Come fly with me: Britain's passion for birds of prey
The ugliest animals on earth: Blobfish, axolotl and proboscis monkey battle it out to be named least attractive beast
A spotter's guide to a wild orchid summer
- 1 'Cheeky' Nando's under fire for apparently coming onto a customer on Twitter
- 2 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 3 Playboy model April Summers speaks out about being a victim of revenge porn
- 4 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 5 iPhone 'effective power' text: how to be safe from iOS bug that lets people crash your phone
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'
£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...
£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...