In his second book, Dave Goulson takes us to France in what is part autobiography, part tract, and a rousing read on insects, pets, and pandas, writes Tommy Barker.
A Buzz in the Meadow
Vintage, €13.50; ebook, €8.49
IT’S just 45 years since the great Irish warbler Dana sung of butterflies and bees (and snowdrops and daffodils), but, in truth, we Irish don’t really do all kinds of everything. We might have embraced feeding the birds with a newfound fervour — supermarket aisles now have as many peanut and grain choices for our avian friends as they do meal for mutts — but we sure do take our bugs, bees, butterflies, and critters pretty much for granted round these parts. For most of us, bugs equal pests. Pesky fly? Bugging bug? Swat them.
But Dave Goulson, author of A Buzz in the Meadow, would rather we’d swot up on them. Or, at least, look closer and consider them – they have so much to teach us about the great big circle of life, on our tiny planet, in an infinitely expanding universe.
With typical human hubris, we look out and back into our past with our telescopes, but our humble microscopes surely hold more sway over our own peculiar planet’s future. Writer and busy-as-a-bee British biologist Dave Goldston has viewed many thousands of insects under his professional microscope. Here in print, he’s now all over them like a rash, en plein air, in the meadows of France, where, back in 2003, he bought a lackadaisically maintained (ie, falling down) 160-year old farmhouse.
It had insects thriving on its neglect, and deathwatch beetles on a slow mission to eat him out of house and home, roof timber by timber. No sweat. Called after its original owner, his ever-so-slowly crumbling Chez Nauche came with 30 acres and inside its embracing thick ditches are barely disturbed hay meadows that Goulson could use as a free-range lab for simple trials in biodiversity, and with a dip in the folds of field by a stream, crying out for a pond to be created, and for newts to be its colonisers.
In his second book (this is a follow up to his acclaimed and equally accessible 2013 book, A Sting in the Tail), we join Goulson et famille on his jaunts around his French landholding. The scientist-at-head yet writer-at-heart makes an informative and — equally as important — a witty host, well able to get down and dirty with the best of them in his fecund Gallic meadows by the Charente river, a ballroom of romance for thousands of species, set up over centuries for insect sex and insect suppers: Bugs’ lives, writ small.
In what’s part-autobiography, part tract, Goulson emerges as a child who grew up with (and killed) a menagerie of pets and amphibians, netting and naming butterflies. Indeed, and initially, he seems like a slightly dotty and venerable boffin: He’s not yet 50, though, and so hopefully has lots of earth — and species saving and writing — left in him.
Don’t get him started, though, on courting and copulating dragonflies and mantises. Well, do, actually, because he has the mantises’ cannibalistic sex lives down to a tee. Fact: A male mantis can initiate copulation after his head has been taken off. Hmm, a seemingly impossibility, yet ‘off-his-head’ achievement familiar perhaps to immature adult habitués of summer rock festivals, in Irish meadows?
While in France, and in his day job in a UK university (whence he also takes undergrad and PhD students to his French hectares for fields studies — they sound a blast) entomologym biology, and the millions of species we share this planet with are grist to the Goulson mill. We follow our genial guide out of the lab, up the garden path, and out to the meadows, and quickly realise his favourites are the bumbling bumblebees, pollinators of our planet.
Back in 2006, alarmed at the lack of concern over the disappearance of the humble toiling bumblebee, Dave (he doesn’t write as Dr David Goulson) founded the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust, but despite his passion even he isn’t an inclusive lover of all things insect and arthropod.
He draws the line at houseflies, and, to a lesser extent, at midges, tsetse flies, and mosquitos. Survival of the species, and all that, and we have clout and rights too. Phew, touché — at this admission we’d started bonding.
By the time Goulson recounted his experience of summer student jobs working with disease-carrying houseflies in battery chicken farms, I was reinforced in my conviction to never buy an intensively farmed chicken or egg again. Tip from the man in the chicken-karma know? “If you are ever reincarnated as a chicken, pray you don’t end up on the bottom row. The floors are mesh, so that the excreta from the topmost chicken dribbles down on to those below.”
Appropriately the writer prefaces his Filthy Flies chapter with the Ogden Nash line, “God in his wisdom made the fly/and then forgot to tell us why”. And, for anyone who ever uselessly flailed a fly-swatter, he follows up with Richard Armour’s even better couplet: “The hand is quicker than the eye is/but somewhat slower than the fly is.”
While Goulson knows when to push the prurient button to whet a reader’s curiosity, he’s quite evangelical too. By the end of the easily digested A Buzz in the Meadow, when he rounds on his pet subject of disappearing bee colonies, you’re completely with him, ready to storm the hedgerows and the hives on his Bee Specials behalf (he’s counted 70 bee species to date in his few fields). It’s good, too, to know he’s no dilettante, his science is indeed well-grounded, gloriously so, and while initially he wears and relates his learning lightly, when it comes to his pet bee topic, Colony Collapse Disorder, his passion is in full flower in the book’s concluding chapters.
Thankfully, this isn’t your average, befuddled-Brit abroad book, with slightly superior and self-regarding tales of encounters with French/Italian/Greek peasants and professionals, of daft customs and impenetrable conveyancing and forrin’ plumbing — that fellow Peter Mayle did indeed spawn a genre 20 years ago. In fact, French human beings barely get a look in, and when a few do cross his land, they have guns, in the love of la chasse. For the sake of his wildlife sanctuary, he has to put the run on them, diplomatically, and self-deprecatingly.
Showdowns do get a look in here in this easily digested work, and of course there is a point to it all. It’s far from wildlife whimsy or boyhood recollections of buddleias and butterflies and butterfly nets and ‘wisha, where’s it all gone?’
Its most compelling and forceful chapters are those dealing with insecticides, especially the latest 1990s/2000s varieties called neoncotinodis, or neonics, and at the loss of species, the shrinking of biodiversity at an alarming rate: “The threads of the tapestry are being picked out, one by one,” as Goulson notes rather despairingly.
Goulson was a key player in UK/French scientific moves to force the EU to more closely scrutinise the big business of neonics, resulting in a two-year moratorium (up until 2015) — on the use of these DDT equivalents of our day, and he has great insight into the flaws and shortcomings of EU set-aside policies and their latter incarnations. For that alone it is worth the cover price for Irish readers, with interests ranging from agriculture to the natural world, and species preservation — our own species, included. He is at pains to point out that loss of species at the bottom of the food chain is equally/more important as those at the top, the media-friendly furry, feathered or apparently cuddly ones. Like, pandas? If pandas go, there’d be just a little bit more bamboo in China, he suggests impishly.
A Buzz in the Meadow can be seen as a manifesto that slowly creeps up on you (you could say it ends with a Sting in the Tail), but that’s to diminish (or just recognise?) its charm, and its power.
As in the case of science writer Stephen Jay Gould, there’s a broader intelligence at work here too, and a sly one, and an observationally literary one too, where hares are “endearingly gangly and lolloping creatures”, and where a hedgehog is spotted “out for an early morning snuffle, or perhaps on its way home after a busy night chomping worms. I love their rolling gait, reminiscent of an old man with a gammy hip, on the way back from the pub.” Roll on, Mr Goulson.
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