By Reserves Ecologist, Glenn Norris
Ok, stop what you’re doing and make plans to go out to your local heathland this weekend. There is no better time of year to visit these incredibly rare habitats than now and I promise you won’t be disappointed because you might just see something you’ve never seen before.
You’ll treated to a sea of pink and purple of flowering heather, the orange of gone-over Bell Heather and fiery yellow eruptions of Gorse all offset perfectly by the subtle brown background and rich greens of Scots Pine and Silver Birch.
The landscapes at Old Lodge or Iping Common are stunning, but take a closer look at the flowering heather and you’ll see an action-packed world of scoffing caterpillars, frantic pollinators and predatory wasps all making the most of the waning heat of late summer.
Last week I spent just 15 minutes watching one of the coolest insects of the year going about their lives with such efficiency and drive that it was hard to focus on looking for the cows like I was supposed to be doing. The insect in question is a wasp, and is named the Bee Wolf. Although not quite up to the same legendary status as Beowulf, they are master-predators and there is no shortage of prey whilst the heather is in flower.
Bee Wolves prey on Honeybees; the invertebrate version of a Saharan Wildebeest lumbering along often with legs laden with pollen. The Bee Wolf is longer than the Honeybee, but slighter with a skinnier waist typical of wasps, and importantly, it is fast. After a quick nectar boost the hunt begins and from what I saw, it doesn’t take long. The bee is swooped upon from behind with a rapid sting between the gaps of the protective plates of the Honeybee’s thorax and paralysis is almost instantaneous.
The Bee Wolf then carries the paralysed prey back to her burrow, which can be up to 1m deep. At the bottom lies a number of side-tunnels that each harbour one of her eggs, each of which is provisioned with five or six bees. In the 15 minutes I spent watching, about five individual Bee Wolves returned with Honeybees to stock their brood tunnel and considering these are active through late summer whenever the sun is shining, it doesn’t take long to imagine just how many bees these predators are taking.
The Bee Wolf was once considered a rarity amongst the British Hymenoptera but it is a species that has benefited from longer summer warmer seasons through climate change and has dramatically extended its range in the last two decades. But heat isn’t the only factor; on reserves such as Stedham and Iping Common the provision of bare sandy ground, using grazing cows and machinery, means that they are able to form their nesting ‘cities’ where they can number up to 15,000 burrows.