Saturday, December 27, 2014

"A Sting in the Tale" by Dave Goulson

When I was 9 or 10, my Uncle Ted came to the States after a couple years in Africa, where he had served with the Peace Corps.  He stayed with us for a while as he searched for and found a teaching job, then was able to find his own home (and eventually a wife, Maja!)  Uncle Ted brought with him a VW bug, tales of crashing his motorcycle into a lion basking on the road, and a book that he thought I'd enjoy reading, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

While I was glad when Uncle Ted found his own place (since he'd been given MY bedroom during his sojourn with us, while I had to bunk with my 2 younger brothers), I was always glad that he'd stayed with us.  I was especially glad that he'd shared My Family and Other Animals with me. I loved that book and I've reread it multiple times.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this magical story, it's the autobiographical tale - told from an adult's perspective - of a young English boy's years living with his mother and siblings on the Greek island of Corfu.  As a boy in this magical place, Durrell spent most of his days observing and collecting animals, bringing many of them home (alive) so that he could study them closely and learn their habits.  Not surprisingly, his family didn't share his love of animals.  They particularly disliked sharing their home with his menagerie and many humorous incidents resulted.  The book ends up as an engrossing combination of slapstick humor and natural history information.  Being the grasshopper-catching, toad-racing kid that I was, I loved it...and I learned an incredible amount about a wide variety of animals from reading it.

For several years afterward, I aspired to be a young, female, Gerald Durrell, even going so far as to make a series of "aquariums" out of cardboard milk cartons so that I could bring home unfortunate animals from the beach, then try to keep them alive in my bedroom.  My success ratio was abysmal, but my enthusiasm for animals and the environment never waned.

There's still a strong streak of that "young, female, Gerald Durrell" in me, so you'll understand how special I think a recently published book is when I say that it reminds me of My Family and Other Animals.

The book I'm referring to is Dave Goulson's A Sting in the Tale, which was published in 2013.  However, Dave Goulson isn't just a kid who loved animals, he is now a professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Sussex...and he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006.  This book is that wonderful mix of natural history and human saga that I came to love in Durrell's work, only this time the natural history tales revolve primarily around bumblebees and the human characters are apt to be graduate students or Dr. Goulson himself.

The prologue of A Sting in the Tale briefly describes Goulson's childhood, including some almost grisly (but still humorous) tales of learning about animals the hard way.  The body of the book covers a wide-ranging array of tales such as why (and how) Britain's population of short-haired bumblebees came to be re-established by way of New Zealand, why biologists can sometimes be found snipping toes off bumblebees, and how bumblebees find their way home to the right nest.

Bumblebees are important native pollinators.  They are often some of the earliest insects flying to pollinate spring flowers;  they can be among the latest insects pollinating in the fall as well.  There are species of plants - some of them quite important in our food supply - that rely heavily on the services of bumblebees for pollination, so the fact that bumblebees aren't doing well overall is important to know.  Goulson and his students have been doing much of the recent research learning about bumblebees and trying to determine what's been messing with their life cycles and causing their populations to decline so precipitously.

For any person interested in native pollinators or just interested in how the natural world works, the stories and discoveries in this book are fascinating.  For gardeners, they are likely to be especially intriguing.  I highly recommend reading this book - you'll never look at those fat, hairy, black and yellow bumblers quite the same way again!

P.S.  I would especially like to thank my friend Joan for recommending this book to me...and for almost forcing it onto me!  She was exactly right - it's excellent and I'm so glad that I didn't miss it.


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

It sure sounds good. One for my list which I keep adding to but not getting to! Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this introduction. I would love to read this book one day, and also "My Family and Other Animals." I just gave up my 55 gallon fish tank (so I could migrate to Cedar Key). I've had it for nearly 30 years and although I miss it, I am so happy not to have anything in a cage. I hope to dig a small pond in the garden instead for frogs to come and go as they please.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Kathy, "My Family and Other Animals" seems to have made a much bigger splash in Britain than here in the States, but I love it. There was a movie made about the book a few years ago which was very good, too, but (as usual) I think the book was much richer.

We raised tropical fish for many years and had quite an array of tanks. We got rid of them when our daughter was a toddler out of fear that she would pull one over on herself, then never really got back into the hobby again. I agree wholeheartedly that I prefer providing habitat, but letting the animals take care of themselves otherwise!