In 2007 The Ranger wrote about his local colony of Philanthus triangulum, the European beewolf. Sadly, in 2008 the fearsome little things were nowhere to be found – perhaps they despaired of the dismal weather. In 2009 too I searched without success, but inspired by Ian Boyd’s find in Newchurch I recently went back for a second look at the sandy banks on Ryde seafront. This time sharp eyed Cat spotted the tell-tale signs of excavations a little way away. It seems that the original site had been covered by drifting sand over winter and now seemed too sandy even for these sand-loving creatures. But not far off they were hard at it, murdering bees industriously.
The predators were coming home laden with bee-carcases. The one above has a decapitated bee slung underneath, held neatly in place with her middle legs (look for the bee’s black hind leg and wing to orient yourself – the bee is upside-down). How she takes off with that great weight I don’t know, but she can neatly fly straight into a hole apparently no wider than she is. Young ranger Bill was intrigued by the yellow aeronauts, and pronounced that he ‘didn’t like wasps’. He knew all about the plight of honeybees and bumblebees, so was puzzled by my own interest and pleasure in these animals that were quite obviously killing honeybees in a very direct way. I found his scepticism difficult to argue against. After all, if everyone is talking about saving bees, why should we cherish these raptorous yellowjackets? Beewolves are very rare – a great deal rarer then their prey. But it’s a bit like the proverbial cases where one rare bird eats an even rarer one: frustrating, but it’s just the way biodiversity works. It also illustrates a wider point which is often lost in discussions about conservation: what is good for the species is not always good for the individual, and what is good for the ecosystem is not always good for the species. So in this case, it is true that a couple of hundred beewolves will eat a couple of thousand bees. Bad luck on those bees – but will the colony suffer for it? Unlikely. An average colony has perhaps 50,000 individuals, and can make many more pretty quickly. Losses for bee workers are very high – they don’t often die of old age. Beewolves are just one hazard amongst many, and not a very big hazard at that.
And as for the ecosystem, it’s true to say that a healthy and diverse ecosystem has a range of species in it, not just the ones we happen to find useful. Adult beewolves actually live on nectar and pollen, just like bees do. It’s more likely that honey bees will thrive in an area where beewolves can find a home than one where insects would struggle to find enough nectar to subsist. So in a paradoxical way, beewolves are the sign of a healthy bee population, and certainly not to be discouraged. But despite that learned explanation, I still had to tell Bill that stamping on their nests was not going to be good conservation.