Plight of the bumblebee

The humble bumblebee toils away largely unnoticed, but it needs all the friends it can get. Prof Ted Benton's new book champions this industrious insect.

The humble bumblebee toils away largely unnoticed, but it needs all the friends it can get. Prof Ted Benton's new book champions this industrious insect. He tells STEVEN RUSSELL why we should look after them

BUMBLEBEES look cute thanks to their furry bodies, and we're soothed by their droning on a summer's afternoon, but do we care enough about their plight?

Many British species are in trouble - affected by changes in farming practices, for instance, and house-building. What's happening to them could have knock-on effects for us. They are, if we can muddle wildlife metaphors, a bit like the miners' canary - an early-warning system highlighting danger ahead.

Ted Benton's comprehensive new work - the result of more than 20 years of field observation - is billed as the first-ever book to entirely focus on bumblebees, explaining everything anyone could want to know: from their life cycle and foraging patterns to their psychology.

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But it's the story of the insects' alarming decline that runs as a theme through the 500-odd pages. Three UK species are extinct and another nine are living on borrowed time.

It's hard to pinpoint a single cause. A combination of factors is at work in disrupting food sources and reducing and fragmenting bumblebee habitat, it seems: urbanisation, and the industrialisation of agriculture, basically.

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There was an agricultural revolution after the war, for about 30 years up until the mid-1970s, which allowed an intensification of production through mechanisation, artificial pesticides and fertilisers, bigger fields and drainage of wetlands, points out the author.

“Over this period, large commercial farms increasingly displaced smaller family farms, which had often relied on more traditional agricultural methods.” Grassland was lost on a large scale, especially in eastern England, to boost arable cultivation. Hedges were removed and small woodlands grubbed out.

Meanwhile, house-building and road-building has covered land in Tarmac, affecting bumblebees, butterflies, flowers and other wildlife.

Some of the saddest pictures in the book are “before and after” images of wild flowers growing on a steep slope of the South Downs before it was transformed into a featureless landscape under intensive arable cultivation.

There's Mill Wood Pit, a brownfield site in south Essex that was home to wildlife such as the scarce carder bumblebee. Then part of it was turned into a housing estate.

Interestingly, the plight of the humble insect is inextricably tied up with Ted's interests in sociology - he's a professor at the University of Essex in Colchester - and philosophy.

The 63-year-old admits: “Only in recent years did I finally wake up to the obvious connections between my work as a sociologist and the environmental changes that all too often caused me distress as a lover of nature. The destruction of wild places - including, perhaps especially, the wild places in our towns and cities - has economic, social and political causes.”

Trouble is, aren't humans programmed to continually improve their lot? If that means building along the Thames, something of a wildlife haven, we generally think it's a worthwhile sacrifice.

“Well, this is where I switch to being a sociologist! I think it's possible to have a much more happy and fulfilled life without having the kind of per capita impact on the environment we currently do. When I say per capita, I mean the average impact - because we know there are enormous inequalities in people's use of the environment.

“I was just reading something about water use. The UN recommendation is that we should have something like 50 litres a day per person. Many populations in the world survive on less than 10 a day. The average American uses 500 litres a day.

“Politicians give lip service to this - there's one in particular giving lip service to this - but it seems to me that if we had a more just society in which we used what environmental capacity we've got to address the problems of the poor, and then looked at ways the rest of us could live more sustainably . . .

“My belief is that if we changed our lifestyles in the right direction we could have happier and more fulfilled lives. I get enormous pleasure from just walking over Hilly Fields or into the local country park and seeing all these insects. It doesn't cost anything. We don't run a car, for example. We get around perfectly well on public transport.”

Talking about a “lifestyle choice” isn't quite right, says Ted. “I think that puts too much on the individual. There are things you can do, in terms of green consumption, recycling and all of that, but this is something where popular feeling has to make contact with policymakers and people in power.

“It's no good people living in the countryside not having a car if there isn't a bus service. So you have to have ways in which people can lead satisfying lives. It needs political leadership as well as cultural change. Those two things have got to come together.”

He recognises there's increasing public concern, with large numbers of people belonging to environmental organisations such as the RSPB, “but what we're up against is incredibly powerful vested interests. The developers, obviously, and road transport interests, connected up with petrochemicals, are the most powerful drivers of these development pressures that are destroying the environment.”

Is he optimistic of a seismic shift for the better?

“Not really, no. We're on a juggernaut process of development that nobody has the levers to stop.” There seems to be an elite group of “haves”, protecting their profligate lifestyles and clamping down on the “have-less”. “That's effectively what environmental taxes do: if you can afford it, you can drive whatever kind of car you want.”

We're not, he recognises, doing very well at the moment, “but in so far as you can say anything general about human nature, I think we do have both the capacity and I think an innate drive to co-operate and have compassion for others. I think that's part of human nature”.

There are signs of beneficial changes to the way we encourage agriculture, “but it's pretty late and it's not enough.

He would like more support for organic agriculture. “There's a kind of madness at the moment, with escalating demand for organic produce, but we haven't got the capacity to produce it here. So, at enormous cost to the environment, we're importing organic tomatoes from halfway across the world.” A crash programme to help UK farmers meet that demand would be a start, he argues.

Ted says that of four UK bumblebee species that were identified in the 1990s as in need of urgent action, one seems to have recovered under its own steam and two have probably stabilised, with very tentative signs of recovery. The planting of conservation strips in fields, for which farmers can get grant aid under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, do seem to have helped, he says - things such as clovers, trefoils, agricultural legumes.

“Against that is the fact there's one species that is in a way the most threatened. It's called the shrill carder. Its stronghold is along the Thames Estuary” - where massive house-building is planned on brownfield sites. (Former industrial land isn't wasteland, stresses Ted. Nature quickly reclaims it and turns it into valuable wildlife habitat.)

“So there's quite a fight on about that. They're not just sites for these rare bumblebees; in terms of Europe they are very, very rich invertebrae sites. The situation looks a bit bleak. In fact, the only site reasonably secure for that particular species are military grounds protected from intensive agriculture, like Salisbury Plain and a couple more in Wales.”

On the thorny issue of house-building, where do we put homes if not brownfield land? We surely don't want to develop green fields . . .

“I think there's a lot of agricultural land that is very, very degraded, and there might be a case for building on some greenfield sites. But the bottom line for me is - because I think you've got to marry environmental protection with social justice - that it's absolutely desperately important that we deal with homelessness.

“The selling off of council houses was a disaster from that point of view. Local councils should have a stock of public housing which is low cost.

“If you look at the reasons why there's been this explosion of house-building, most of it is to do with family breakdown. It's not to do with increasing population.

“I think you need a regional policy, because there are parts of Britain that are underpopulated. But unless you provide a transport structure and an incentive structure, and you actually put pressure on capital to invest in different parts of the country, you're going to get this overheating in the south-east. “You need to think very critically about why it is that we've got this proliferation of single-person housing. What's happening to the quality of our social lives that makes it impossible for people to live together any more?

“One way of looking at it, for example, would be to link marital breakdown with the kind of pressures people face at work. And why do they face those pressures at work? Partly because we're under this pressure to consume.” Thus Man extends his reach and uses more natural resources. And we're back to our bumblebee . . .

And if we don't change? “The worst thing is that we wouldn't have these things with which to share the planet. I think they have a value in themselves, enhance our lives and have a right to live.”

Bumblebees pollinate many agricultural and horticultural crops, and a number of rare wild flowers. “The bizarre thing is that nearly all the tomatoes grown in greenhouses in this country are pollinated by bumblebees bred commercially for the purpose, because they can't rely on sufficient wild bumblebees.”

Fruit orchards also have a heavy reliance. Bumblebees are incredibly efficient pollinators, partly because of furry bodies “and also because they have this remarkable ability to raise their temperature higher than the surroundings, so they can forage early in the day, later in the day, in cold weather, when even honeybees stay in the hive”.

Given a magic wand, what would he do?

“An important message would be changes to the way we manage the countryside, but probably even more priority to protecting urban open spaces and getting people to value what's often seen as unsightly wasteland.

“That's a potential amenity for people in towns. It allows a close relationship with nature that otherwise they might not get. That contact with nature shows that it's all around us and enhances our lives.”

(New Naturalist Bumblebees is published by Collins on April 3, at £45 hardback and £25 paperback.)

THE power of nature captured Ted Benton at a young age, and it's been a love that has never left him.

His wife might view it as an obsession. He says, with a smile: “My argument is you can't have an interest in more than one thing and call either of them an obsession! It's a passionate interest.”

With a friend, a retired lecturer from Norwich, Ted's involved in a project to photograph all the European butterfly species - there's more than 300. “We've got about 10 to go. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed I live long enough to do that!”

He adds: “I'm also quite attracted by ugly insects as well, like beetles.” Slugs are very beautiful, he thinks.

His family moved about quite a bit when he was little, largely so his father - an engineering fitter - could find work. “I remember a fascination, particularly with butterflies, from pre-school times,” says Ted. “I've got these vivid images. But it really got consolidated when my parents moved to Doncaster when I was nine.

“I was there for most of my childhood and adolescence, and it was really there that I met up with other friends, keen naturalists.”

No matter how hard up they were, his parents bought him the Observer's and Wayside and Woodland series. A primary school teacher - Miss Todd - noticed the classmates' interest in wildlife and introduced them to the local natural history society. “They taught us field skills and places to go to look for different things.”

In Doncaster, the family lived in the middle of a big working class estate. The young friends played in quarries and bits of waste ground that were very rich in wildlife.

“This is one of the points I've been trying to make in the book: that urban open spaces are incredibly important for wildlife. So I'm completely against this idea that you develop brownfield sites.”

After teacher training college Ted taught physics and biology in a pioneering comprehensive school in Leicestershire - “and loved it” - but acquired an interest at college in philosophy. “I got a grant to do a philosophy degree. You could do that in those days. I ended up doing a post-graduate degree at Oxford.”

In 1970 he got a job in the sociology department at the University of Essex and moved to Colchester.

Why has wildlife proved so alluring?

“I can give a kind of rationalisation of it.” (There speaks a philosopher!) “I think part of the fascination comes from being able to get a sense of other ways of living in the world that are so totally different from our own.

“That opens up your imagination: what it would be like to be able to see ultra-violet, or being able to being able to hear pitches we can't hear, or having the chemical senses which bumblebees do.

“I think it's mindboggling. The more I got into bumblebees, the more I discovered how immensely complex their social lives are. It's an incredible feat being able to identify the flowers where they will get the right kind of pollen and so on, and find their way to and from the nest.

“You look at the size of their nervous system - you know, a brain that you can hardly see - and yet they pack all that learning ability and knowledge. It's just incredible. Things like that really turn you on.

“I wasn't aware of that when I was a kid, so there must have been some elementary emotional connection with the rest of nature. I think that's shared by most people, actually.

“I think the difference between the people who end up as naturalists and the people who don't is for some bizarre reason people who become naturalists don't grown up, in a sense. You just have that childlike emotional response to things, which gets knocked out of most people through the pressures of having to earn a living or having to deal with difficult things in life.”

Nine things you might not know about bumblebees

1. Not all have a sting. Drones (smaller males that hatch in the middle of the summer) have no sting at all.

2. Bumblebees are much less aggressive than honey bees and will generally not attack a human. If one comes near you, stand quietly and it should move away once it smells you are not a flower with pollen.

3. They never swarm - because they live in small nests. So, you can encourage a nest or two in the garden without fear of this happening.

4. Bumblebees do not produce enough honey for commercial use - just a few grams at a time to feed their young.

5. Their biggest enemy - by far - is a human armed with a pesticide spray.

6. Some bumblebees are ginger-brown, or combinations of black and red.

7. They are social animals with a highly developed division of labour and co-operate with each other in raising the offspring of the queen. There does, though, come a time in the life cycle of a colony when workers try to lay eggs and conflict breaks out.

8. There are also some cuckoo-like species that take over nests and persuade the workers to raise their own young.

9. Colonies usually last for only one season. Usually, only the fertilised queens survive the winter. They emerge from hibernation in the spring, feed, and search for somewhere to build a nest. Eggs are laid in a wax cell, and the larvae fed by the queens with a mixture of pollen and nectar. Larvae turn into worker bumblebees.

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