If you eat a candy bar it’ll take you about an hour to run off the calories. A human-sized bumblebee could burn the same number of calories in 30 seconds, flapping its wings at 200 times per second, or 12,000 rpm.
In fact, they burn calories so fast that even a bumblebee with a full stomach is only 40 minutes from starvation — its metabolic rate is 75 percent higher than a hummingbird’s.
Dave Goulson, University of Sussex, is a charming bee follower, and his new book “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees” is a fascinating account of his efforts to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee to his native England.
Once a common sight, the short-haired had not been seen since 1988.
He knew that several queens were exported to New Zealand in 1885, so he set out to find them, study their habitat and behavior, and determine if he could reintroduce them to the United Kingdom.
But, moving bees from one country to another is “fiddly business,” as Goulson likes to say.
The short-haired bumblebee’s disappearance from the United Kingdom is symptomatic of the global plight of the creatures. He describes this bee as a “flagship for conservation efforts.”
He explains that 100 years ago farming was not mechanized, but relied heavily on horses. Since horses love clover, farmers planted fields of it — a favorite of bees. Additionally, farmers planted fields of hay to harvest and feed to their horses in winter.
And wildflowers flourish in low-nutrient soil once hay is cut. When farming became mechanized and the use of insecticides became common, the bees were hit hard.
Not to spoil the book for you, but by the end Goulson figures out that the short-haired bees in New Zealand are descended from the same two queen bees, rendering them unsavory.
“This is an extreme example of what is known as genetic bottleneck.
As we have seen, inbreeding leads to the expression of rare, recessive and harmful genes, which can result in deformities and generally low survival of individuals.” He imports the bees from Sweden, instead.
As a father of three boys, Goulson has a finely tuned instinct for when his writing is getting too “boring.” But he doesn’t shy away from serious discussions of ecology or genetics and makes what could be terribly technical information exciting.
So exciting, in fact, that I will assert this science book reaches a literary climax.
After anticipating that his reader might be falling asleep and apologizing accordingly, he launches into a description of a bumblebee nest in a state of anarchy.
Sister bees share 75 percent of their genes — more than they share with their mother or father — so they are naturally inclined to invest a huge amount of energy into raising their younger sisters, which makes the nest appear harmonious.
However, when it comes time to produce sons, the queen bee, their mother, must switch off her pheromone signal that has been telling the daughters to develop as workers, not queens.
Without that signal no one is happy tending to the sisters — they all want to make male babies.
“Although the worker bees are physically unable to mate, they have perfectly functional ovaries, and can lay unfertilized eggs — which will develop into sons.” Their potential brothers also have no fathers, making them the equivalent of stepbrothers.
When the daughters start producing sons of their own, “The queen cannot tolerate this treachery, and so she sets about eating all of the workers’ eggs as quickly as they are laid, thereby consuming her own grandchildren.If she catches one of her daughters in the act of laying eggs she will attack and bite her repeatedly.
However, she is heavily outnumbered the daughters retaliate, eating the queen’s eggs — their baby brothers — and anarchy ensues.”
To make matters worse, sometimes these nests are infiltrated by cuckoo bumblebees — and they don’t produce their own workers. “The inherited workers continue to work for their new mistress presumably because they have few other options.” Once the set-upon nest’s original workers die, new cuckoo bees take their place.
Any tender moments in this book take place outside the hive. Goulson buys some property in France where he can build up bee habitat and observe behavior.
Taking his coffee among the flowers one morning, he notices an unusual bee. “I think my heart knew what it was before my head had really had time to take in the details. It was, unmistakably, a short-haired bumblebee.” He had no idea there were any in western France. He only ever sees one.
Goulson, author of more than 200 articles on ecology and conservation, was at a loss to find a way to save the bees he loved. Writing about them wasn’t enough.
“After a long day in the field, a farmer does not come home, have his dinner, then put his feet up in front of the fire to read the latest edition of the ‘Journal of Animal Ecology.’ It is hard to imagine him calling out to his wife, ‘Arrr, my luvver, avee zeen this article on dumbeldores? Oyed better be zowin zum clover tomorrow.’
” These are British farmers.
In 2006 he launched the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a charity that raises money for bee research, distributes packets of bee-friendly flower seed, educates the public about bees and influences policy makers to “adopt policies that support bumblebee and other pollinator populations.”
For more information about pollinator conservation, go toXerces.org or the K-State Extension website.