Dave Goulson.
Dave Goulson.

Bumblebee biologist Dave Goulson might be the pesticide industry's worst enemy -- and therefore a bee's best friend. A professor at Scotland's University of Stirling, he was part of the team whose 2012 Science paper called out the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides, which pose a considerable threat to fauna large and small. They've proven especially lethal to bees.

Exposure to the chemicals reduces the production of queen bees and thus reduces a colony’s chances of surviving the winter (queens are the only bees alive in that season, and they birth a new team of workers when spring arrives). Bumblebees, like honeybees, are critically important to modern agriculture, pollinating everything from canola to watermelon, but their population throughout most of the world has plummeted in recent years.

The ideas pollinated by Goulson and other neonicotinoid researchers recently bore fruit, in the form of a two-year partial ban on the pesticides by the European Union. Having recently released A Sting in the Tale, an autobiographical history of his own research, Goulson spoke with Grist about nature writing, the implications of the E.U. ban, and why farmers keep using pesticides despite the lack of evidence in their favor.

Q. You spend much of the book discussing how you became a researcher, and various adventures you’ve undergone in the name of science. Why write a work of half-memoir, half-biology in the first place?

A. In Britain, scientists are spectacularly poorly understood. People -- even our own students at university -- don’t always know how science really happens, or what academic work actually looks like. So I tried to explain what I do.

Q. And you discuss your failed experiments as well! I don’t see that in many science books.

A. Of course, that’s mostly how it goes! People don’t really understand the process of designing experiments, or that you’ll be horribly wrong the first time, perhaps the second and third time as well. I tried to humanize scientists a bit; we’re often seen as these eccentric people wearing white coats and doing dark magic in a lab somewhere, when we’re really just ordinary bumblers like everyone else.

Q. There was a concerted effort by agrochemical companies to stop the E.U.’s neonicotinoid ban, and even the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser came out against it. How did it succeed despite all that?

Goulson's new book, "A Sting in the Tale."
Goulson's new book, A Sting in the Tale.

A. As far as I can tell, the first major influence was the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) coming out against [neonicotinoids] a few years ago. They were asked by the European Commission to assess the safety of neonicotinoids with regard to bees, and they came to the conclusion, quite clearly, that neonicotinoids posed a whole host of clearly quantified risks. They didn’t come out and say they should be banned, but that was the clear message.