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Beewolf buzzing Ryde once more

Matthew Chatfield
Latest posts by Matthew Chatfield (see all)

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.

Philanthus triangulum, Ryde © Cat James

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.

Honeybee, Fort Victoria, © Cat James

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.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

5 thoughts on “Beewolf buzzing Ryde once more

  • We live in Niton Undercliff down near St. Catherines Point on the south of the Isle of Wight.
    Only yesterday 30th July, my husband and myself were taking a walk along the top of the cliff between Niton and St. Lawrence when we came accros dead bees along the footpath. At first we thought that they had been buffetted by the strong wind, but soon realised that most of these bees had wasp type creatures on top of them which appeared to be devouring them.

    I logged on to your website today,to check some other details and you have revealed the story about the beewolf.

  • The Wildlife Gardener

    How does that beewolf manage to chop the head off a bee? It’s got a weeny little Peaches Geldof pouty mouth, not big jaws!

  • ghostmoth

    What a narrow minded, silly comment Helen. I bet you like bees and butterflies but guess, what? They’re insects too!

  • I do not like insects! They are filthy and nasty that just a nightmare!

  • I have been wondering if P. triangulum is about. I too saw numbers of them at their grisly work around Sandown in 2007 but not in 2008. A couple of weeks ago I found the freshly excavated spoil of their nests but did not see any of the wasps themselves – time for another look.
    A good book if you can find it – The Hunting Wasp by John Crompton.

    The Ranger responds:
    I have a copy already – an excellent tome. Crompton’s ‘Life of the Spider’ was the book that more-or-less set me off on this career.


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