Guest blog by Steve Everett, regular Minsmere visitor
Along the path from the pond to the North Wall, there is a stretch of path with sandy sides that has become a magnet for visitors over the past few weeks. This is the realm of the bee wolf, a digger wasp that specializes in catching honey bees and stocking its larder with them as a food source for its young.
The bee wolf starts by digging a tunnel up to a metre in length into the sloping sides of the path. The soil is easy to dig here, being so sandy, and the sloping sides help rain to drain away and avoid flooding the burrows. Along that deep burrow, the bee wolf carves little chambers – up to 30 – and stocks each chamber with 4-5 bees with a single egg. The bees have only been paralyzed by the wasp’s sting, not killed, as they stay juicier for longer like that and make better food for the wasp’s larvae! The bees are also coated by the female with a secreted substance to reduce fungus and the like, to keep the paralyzed bees fresher for longer.
Catching so many bees means the wasps need to be very industrious and they have been a regular sight flying in with bees clutched to their belly before taking them underground. All this work is done by the females, the males have a lek, just like capercaillie, showing off to the ladies in a small area along the same path. The views of the bee wolves digging out their burrows (they’re like miniature Jack Russells) covering up or uncovering their hole to avoid someone stealing their home and taking the bees in (and occasionally throwing them out!) has captivated large numbers of visitors. Whilst the bee wolves are no longer deemed rare in the UK, they are not that common and have been spreading north and west from our part of the country at a steady rate since the 1980s.
However, that is not all you can find along this stretch of path. To start with, there are other digger wasps inhabiting this area. Wasps specializing in catching spiders, weevils and even shield bugs can be found here, along with sand wasps and even the odd, brave, solitary bee digging itself a home. However, all these wasps live in reasonable harmony, apart from the odd hopeful look down a spare hole.
Different species of wasp with shield bug (above), spider (below) and weevil (bottom)
The bullies on the path are the German wasps. These look very similar to the common wasp we are used to, but they attack the bee wolves, trying to get them to drop their precious cargo and steal it. If they can wrest the bee away, they will efficiently butcher it, chopping off legs, wings, heads – all they’re really interested in is the abdomen, which they will carry off, leaving the evidence of their dissection behind.
A wasp stealing a bee from a bee wolf (above) and the decapitated bee head (below) was all that remained
All of this takes place over a few short weeks. They first appear sometime in early July, by the first week or so in September they will all disappear again. As the nectar the adults feed on becomes scarce, they will die, leaving the developing larvae underground to pupate and emerge next year to start the cycle all over again……
All photos by Steve Everett
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