Professor Dave Goulson, Britain’s leading expert talks about the importance of bees amidst their alarming decline

Written by Aisha Kabir

The story of bumblebees over the past century has been one of decline. Professor Dave Goulson specialises in bee ecology at University of Sussex and is adamant about the importance of these industrious creatures within our fragile environment. “Two species became extinct in the UK during the 20th century and one species recently went globally extinct,” he tells me. This is only getting worse as bees are rapidly declining and have been for quite some time.

Much of Goulson’s work involves the study of behaviour and conservation of bumblebees and he has published numerous novels and scientific articles on the importance of saving them.

“Bees are very important pollinators and pollination is required by about 80% of all plants in the world. Roughly three quarters of the crops grown in the wild don’t give a good harvest unless visited by a pollinator. Though bees do not pollinate everything they are one of the most important pollinators in the northern hemisphere.”

The main reason bees are declining in the UK is due to farming practices. There are more intensive and larger fields, with big monocultures of crops and chemicals – including insecticides intended to kill pests. “Not surprisingly, farmland is quite hostile to all insects. Also, 70% of Britain is farmland so if most farming operates this way it takes away from the habitat that bees would have lived in.” Another threatening cause is climate change. “Bees tend to overheat in hot weather since their fur is designed to keep them warm, so they are most successful and abundant in cool and temperate parts of the world like Britain”.

Goulson developed a curiosity for insects at a young age.

“When I was about five or six years old, I would always collect caterpillars during lunchtime at school and would even take them home to feed them and watch as they grew into beautiful moths. I’ve been lucky to have turned that into a career.”

Since then, Goulson has emerged as the nation’s leading expert on bumblebees and has acquired numerous credentials over the course of his career. He was Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s Social Innovator of the Year in 2010, given the Zoological Society of London’s Marsh Award for Conservation Biology in 2013 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2013. Other honours have included the British Ecological Society’s Public Engagement Award and the Zoological Society of London’s Clarivate Award for Communicating Zoology.

In 2015, Goulson was also named number eight in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s list of the top 50 most influential people in conservation, while in 2018, 2019 and 2020 he was named as a “Highly Cited Researcher” by Thompson ISI. He is also a trustee of Pesticide Action Network, and an “Ambassador” for the UK Wildlife Trusts.

Alongside his research, he has published more than 300 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects, along with the definitive guide on the subject, Bumblebees: Their Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation.

There’s also been a Sunday Times bestseller, A Sting In The Tale, which was created to build interest in bees and their conservation. “I wrote the book to try and inspire people and persuade them that these creatures were worth paying attention to and looking after. While bees are important because they pollinate wildflowers and our crops, I also shed light on their intelligence and fascinating social lives.” This was followed by A Buzz in the Meadow in 2014, Bee Quest in 2017, The Garden Jungle in 2019, then Gardening for Bumblebees and Silent Earth in 2021. So far, these books have been translated into 17 languages and have sold more than half a million copies.

His fascination with these unassuming insects has a direct relevance on all our lives. Goulson’s work has also involved looking at what bees provide for humans. “Much of the fruit and vegetables we eat are pollinated by bees.” he says. “Without bees our diets would be much poorer because they pollinate these vital components of our daily intake.”

Near the end of last year, the human population reached a staggering eight billion people. “With the growing population, losing pollinators means there would be less food and eventually some people would starve. Essentially what would happen if yield started to drop, prices would go up and the poorest would be affected, both internationally and within countries.” 

Right now, we are losing 4% of crop yields, because there aren’t enough pollinators.

Which is causing around half a million deaths a year through malnutrition worldwide. Therefore, if bees continue to decline and the human population continues to rise, that half a million figure is going to increase.

Goulson founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity which has grown to around 12,000 members, with the aim of trying to reverse declines. “We are trying to create more habitat – particularly flower-rich meadows since they are bumblebees’ favourite habitats.” says Goulson. One of the major ways we can help save bees is how we garden. 

He spends much of his time trying to foster and encourage others to look after insects when gardening. “Bees are in every city so if you’ve got a garden of your own then you can grow bee friendly flowers [not using pesticides] and the bees will sniff the flowers out,” says Goulson. He also mentions if you do not have a garden “You can badger the council to go pesticide-free and plant bee-friendly flowers in parks, and also reduce mowing so often.”

Another way to help save bees is to spread awareness about the importance of having them, whether it’s via word of mouth or even social media. “Insects like bees are often overlooked in ‘PR’ and not talked about as much compared to bigger, furrier animals like tigers and lions.”

In addition to ways in which people can help reduce the decline of bees Goulson recommends buying more organic foods. “It sounds really simplistic, but it’s true to say that if we all bought organic food there wouldn’t be any pesticides in the world. Of course, not everyone can afford this but those that can, at least partially, encourages farming that is more bee friendly.”

Our MPs write laws and set standards for the environment. For anyone wanting to help save bees, Goulson suggests they: “Vote for politicians that actually do something to better the environment. It would be helpful to vote parties such as Green that focus on the importance of environmentalism and the more votes the better because other parties like Labour might see this and take it more seriously.”

Reducing meat consumption, so that you’re eating it sparingly instead of every day, would make a huge difference.

This has been contested, but according to Goulson there is a very clear scientific consensus that eating meat is harmful for bees. This is because: “meat uses more land and resources to grow and ultimately is not a very efficient way of feeding people. This doesn’t mean everyone has to go vegan but simply reducing the amount you eat can help a lot.” There is a relatively tiny amount of farmland used to grow the majority of our crops that we eat since “about 80 percent of the world’s farmland is used to rear animals” says Goulson.

Based on a recent YouGov survey, which shows the percentage of individuals eating a plant-based diet has increased over the past two years, more than a third of people in the UK are interested in being vegan. According to the poll of UK adults, 36% considered following a vegan or plant-based diet to be ‘an admirable thing to do’. Though veganism has increased over the last few years, there are many who are still sceptical as the ratio of non-vegans to vegans is significantly higher.

“In theory if everyone was to go vegan, we could free up about 60% of the world’s farmland straight away, and possibly even turn it into giant bee nature reserves or national parks. The current system is unnecessarily inefficient and wasteful, since we throw away the food we grow – which is damaging to the environment. But we can all play our part in trying to make things a little better on that front.” 

You can find out more about bees and preventing their decline, by visiting: www.bumblebeeconservation.org

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