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Profile: Biologist and author Dave Goulson

Published: October 15, 2021 at 10:07 am

The biologist and author on environmental awareness, his switch from butterflies to bumblebees and his mission to share his love of insects with the world. Words Lia Leendertz. Portrait Charlie Hopkinson.

As a child, Dave Goulson was so drawn to insects that he once cooked several bees. He squirms at the memory. “I was in the garden after a summer storm and spotted these bedraggled bumblebees on a wet buddleja, so I rescued them.” Indoors he made them a bed of tissue and popped them on to a hotplate on the electric cooker and then, being eight years old, wandered off, only to be brought back to reality by the smell of smoke and the sound of his mother’s alarmed voice. “Maybe my career has been an attempt to make up for that moment,” he jokes.


Happily his curiosity and empathy for the insect world has indeed led him to atone for his early sins. Fascinated by caterpillars and butterflies, he filled his childhood bedroom with jam jars stuffed with leaves and insects (to capture “that magic as they first unfolded their wings”, he says). To feed his obsession, he started a wildlife patch in a corner of his parents’ Shropshire garden, planting bird’s foot trefoil to encourage common blue butterflies to lay their eggs on it and lady’s smock for orange-tips, learning young the link between planting natives and increasing butterfly populations.

He went on to study biology at Oxford and then did a PhD on butterflies, followed by postdoctoral research. It was an afternoon sitting in a patch of flowers that made him switch his attentions from butterflies to bees. “I noticed something odd, which is that a bee will often veer away from a flower at the last second. I tried reading up on it but couldn’t find anything.” He spent five years unravelling this, discovering that bees will sniff each flower for the smelly footprint of a recently visiting bee. If they detect it, the flower will be empty, so they fly on. “I had always loved butterflies, but they are pretty stupid – beautiful but airheaded. Bees are really clever. I just thought that was really cool and I was hooked.”


His work focuses in particular on the decline of bumblebees and what we can do about it, especially in gardens. “In the UK there are around 22 million private gardens, covering an area of nearly half a million hectares, more than all the nature reserves put together. Just imagine if those gardens were wildlife-friendly, free of pesticides, and full of wildflowers, long grass and wildlife ponds. A lot of environmental issues, such as climate change or forest fires in the Amazon, feel hopeless, but in our gardens we have control.” This is the way he gardens in the two-acre plot in East Sussex that he shares with his wife and three sons. “There are loads of fruit trees, blossoming from March to the end of May, one after another. And I grow a higgledy-piggledy mix of traditional cottage garden flowers and wildflowers. It’s buzzing with life,” he says. Only his youngest son seems to have inherited his love of insect life and together they have set up moth traps in the garden and found more than 200 species.

It was this understanding of the importance of gardens that led him to think beyond academia. “You publish papers in scientific journals, and they’re read by other academics, not the politicians or farmers or gardeners who can actually make a difference.” He set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to undertake projects to monitor and conserve bees, but still felt as if he was preaching to the converted. Wanting to reach a bigger audience he “had a bash” at writing a popular science book. A Sting in the Tale was published in 2013 and was very popular, becoming a Sunday Timesbestseller and being translated into 14 languages. “People told me it had inspired them to plant wildflowers in their garden. It felt like the most useful thing I’d ever done.”

Four other popular science books about insects’ fascinating lives followed, as well as the more practical Gardening for Bumblebees, and he is soon to publish another popular science book, Silent Earth, about insect decline and what we can do to address it. “This one is a bit more serious,” he says, “and it feels like a summary of my life’s work.” He wasn’t even sure whether he wanted to write it at all. “I kept wondering if anyone would want to read something that is in parts quite depressing, but as well as emphasising that we have a real crisis on our hands, I try to offer a solution. We need to feel hope to act.”

He struggles with hope at times himself. “I don’t think the future’s terribly bright. I think we know that this horrible, interconnected series of environmental disasters is going to unfold – climate change, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, pollution, overfishing and deforestation – none of which we’re doing enough about. So life is going to be very hard for future generations. But anything we do now to improve the situation will help. Making our gardens wildlife-friendly is an easy win. And the results are glorious. We’d be crazy not to do it."


Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse is published by Jonathan Cape, price £20.


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