Why You Should Think Twice Before Spraying That Insecticide In 2003, conservationist and biology professor Dave Goulson bought a run...
In 2003, conservationist and biology professor Dave Goulson bought a rundown farm in rural France, with the hopes of transforming it into a safe haven for butterflies, dragonflies, newts, bumblebees, and other insects to live in peace without the threat of modern society (ie, humans and their destructive ways).A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm is Dave's chronicle of the last decade at Chez Nauche, as the sanctuary is named, as an observer of the habits and tendencies of various creatures. He spoke to T&C about some of his findings—like how female praying mantises will often bite off male mantis' heads during sex—and why we need to appreciate the invertebrates that live among us, for ourown sake.
HOW DID YOU COME UPON THIS CAREER PATH—STUDYING INSECTS?
I was always interested in creepy crawlers and wildlife. My earliest memory was when I was four or five, catching caterpillars and keeping them in jam jars. Most little kids love catching insects and looking after them, but somehow they lose that interest as they grow older and I managed to keep it.
WHAT COMPELLED YOU TO PUT ALL OF YOUR FINDINGS AND RESEARCH INTO A BOOK? YOU FIRST WROTE A STING IN THE TALE, ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BUMBLEBEES, AND NOW THIS.
I'm trying to engage with people, get them interested and involved in conservation and looking after the environment. It seems to be that an awful lot of people don't really care or just don't know that there are big climate issues in the world. It's a difficult line to tread because you don't want to be too preachy, but on the other hand if you don't say that something is wrong, then they won't really fix it. As a scientist, you tend to communicate with other scientists and you write boring papers that are only read by a handful of other specialists in your area. It doesn't really change the world. So the books are a way to get to a much bigger audience.
THERE'S A SCENE IN THE BOOK WHERE YOU ARE DESCRIBING YOUR HOUSE, AND HOW YOU LET THE MILLION LITTLE CREATURES ROAM ABOUT FREELY ON THE FLOOR, UP THE WALLS. I THOUGHT IT WAS BOTH FASCINATING AND KIND OF TERRIFYING... SO YOU JUST LIVE AMONG THEM?
It's kind of futile to try and do otherwise because the house sits empty for big chunks of time (in the winter) and it gets occupied by spiders, flies, beetles, etc. It's almost as if the humans are the intruders so it's a bit rude to toss them out—they've been here all year living their lives. I do quite like lying there when it's dark and hearing all these things scurrying around in the ceiling, in the walls, everywhere. Like you hear the door mice chattering to each other—it's kind of sweet. They do poo around the place a bit but it's not so bad.
DO YOU SEE CHEZ NAUCHE AS YOUR PERFECT SOCIETY OF INSECTS?
I don't know about that but it's a place where they are free to do whatever they want, they are left in peace, they aren't sprayed with chemicals, and no one is trying to do anything. They can live out their lives and that's quite rare these days. There aren't many spaces left for wildlife.
YOU GO INTO A LOT OF DETAIL ABOUT THE MATING HABITS OF VARIOUS SPECIES. I FOUND THE PRAYING MANTIS RITUALS TO BE THE MOST INTERESTING. CARE TO PAINT A PICTURE FOR US?
It's been known for many years that the males get eaten during courtship. In insects usually, the females tend to be bigger and stronger than the males so if you are a predatory insect, mating is going to be dangerous business—a real gamble. The males have to run the gauntlet of trying to win over a female and they have lots of different tactics. Some do a little dance to convince females that they're a good partner while others creep up on them from behind and just leap on in an unceremonious way. But whichever strategy they take, it's pretty common that they'll end up getting eaten and it largely depends on how hungry the female is—whether she's interested in sex or food. One of the most striking things is that most commonly, the male manages to leap on the female and start mating. But then she starts to get peckish partway through and she'll turn around, grab the male's head, and start eating. What's really remarkable is the male carries on mating long after his head has been consumed. In fact, he seems to become more energetic once his head's been eaten and all of his inhibitions are gone at that point. He's not going to do anything else with his life so he might as well put everything he can into that last act. Poor things.
YOU'RE VERY PASSIONATE ABOUT THE PLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEES, HAVING SPENT THE LAST TWENTY YEARS STUDYING THEM. AND THE NEW YORK TIMES RECENTLY REPORTED ON THE RECENT AND VERY TROUBLING RISE IN THE DEATH OF HONEYBEES. WHAT WOULD THE DOMINO EFFECT BE IF THESE SPECIES WERE TO GO EXTINCT?
We'd lose three-quarters of all crops people grow through pollinating by bees—that includes all fruits and most of the vegetables we eat. Without bees our diets would consist of bread, rice, and porridge. It would be awful. Bees have been pollinating our crops free of charge and without any help from us for ten thousand years. Now they're in trouble entirely due to things we've done.
THEN WHAT CAN WE DO IN OUR DAILY LIVES TO BE MORE CONSERVATION-CONSCIOUS?
The simplest thing is to plant a few bee-friendly flowers in your garden, or even in a window box in the city. Grow some thyme, lavender, or rosemary—garden herbs are really good for bees and they have a dual purpose since you can use them for cooking as well. And don't put any pesticides on them. I don't think people need pesticides in their garden. Also, composting is really important. Compost heaps are good nesting places for bumblebees and everyone who has a garden should have a little composting in the corner somewhere. If every garden had bee-friendly flowers, a compost heap, and was pesticide-free, and if public parks were filled with wildflowers, you could imagine cities becoming huge, bee-friendly, wildlife preserves. Why not? There's no great cost to that. It doesn't involve us giving up anything or doing anything that different from what we're doing. It's an easy win.
WHAT WOULD A PERFECT WORLD LOOK LIKE, TO YOU?
I'm not sure where to start. It seems to me we need to find a way to stop the endless change, the dramatic growth, the ever-high-yield from farming. All of that is not sustainable, it's harming the environment in so many ways. We need to reach a point where we say, 'Wait, what are we striving for? Why are we still chopping down the rainforest? Why are we driving species to extinction?' Maybe we should be happy with what we have rather than endlessly try to grow our economy and compete with a neighboring country. We need to plan much longer-term and think, 'What do we want the world to look like in 50 years? 100 years? What do we want to pass down to our children's children?' We need to act in a way that bears that in mind rather than just short-term gain, financial gain, and political gain which seems to be the focus of so much human activity. It's bonkers.