Originally published May 2016
Hello everyone! Now if you are feeling somewhat battered and confused by this changeable weather, just consider the effect on Ma Nature and all the denizens of her fair realm. A stroll in the countryside necessitates a Thomas More approach to life. Not to the extent of bringing the full wrath of the monarchy down upon our heads, whilst still in our possession, but rather ensuring we are prepared for all seasons!
As I write this I am well aware that on such a perambulation along the footpaths we may encounter a carpet of our native Bluebells (H. non-scripta) and Wild Garlic (A. ursinum) gleaming in the sun one minute then suddenly sporting a chilly mantle of snow the next. We could be watching a pair of chirpy Robins gathering grubs for their brood, their song encapsulating the joys of Spring, only to witness them scurrying for shelter in order to avoid being bludgeoned by a spontaneous hailstorm. It is very likely that the various Beltane Fire Festivals due to occur at the end of April will be a welcome source of warmth as well as welcoming the light of the Summer.
So on to the reason for the title of this scribble. Following on from the spots of last month, let us consider another of Ma Nature’s favourite patterns. She seems to have decided that stripes will indicate danger, as in the case of Tigers, Coral Snakes, Dennis the Menace and of course Wasps, Bees and Hornets. Their stripy coats warn of the ability to eat you, poison you (via fang and sting) or throw stink bombs at you and take your sweets. Clearly Zebra and Nemo are there to prove that there are exceptions to every rule!
Despite the vagaries of the British weather the air is full of the sound of striped buzzers. For the last two years the hollow tree near the bench (to be repaired) in our little reserve has housed a colony of Wasps. We have observed them to-ing and fro-ing at the entrance above, and a pile of sawdust growing at the foot of the tree as they hollow it out further.
To many people in this country, and I suspect throughout the world, the assumption is that there are three types of stinging insect: Wasps, Bees and Hornets; and whatever does not sting you will bite you. In fact, out of a staggering 9,000 Wasp species in this country, only 250 of the larger species have the ability to sting and just nine of these make up the Vespidae (Social Wasps).
Hornets are amongst the largest of this group and each year we seem to get a warning of some deadly species invading our shores. Our native species (Vespa crabo) is usually found in woodlands and can pack quite a punch when threatened.
The scourge of picnickers and beer-garden diners is almost certainly the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris). Found throughout the UK they measure between 12-17mm in length, with the Queen measuring up to 20mm and one nest can contain up to 10,000 individuals. Each of the six segments of the wasp’s abdomen has one black and one yellow stripe, a clear warning to beware! Other types of Wasp include Sand Wasps, Digger Wasps and even Spider-Hunting Wasps. Many of the parasitic wasps found on these Isles are so small as to be practically microscopic in size.
The Bumble Bee Conservation Trust advises us that there are around 275 species of Bumblebee in the world, twenty-four of which are found in Britain. We have one species of Honey Bee, Apis Mellifera, found throughout North Europe. Unlike the relatively small nest of the Bumblebee, containing up to 400 bees, Honey Bees create large colonies of around 50,000 individuals. As these two types of bee are the only ones capable of inflicting a meaningful sting, all nests should be treated with the respect they deserve. The other 250 species of bee in this country are Solitary Bees. These include the Megachilidae, the Mason or Leaf-Cutting Bees, many of which have a stinger but are too weak to be effective on humans.
At this point it would be appropriate to mention the work of two men. Henry Walter Bates (1825-92), an English naturalist who had the enviable opportunity to work alongside Alfred Russell Wallace in the Amazonian Rainforests, and Johann Friedrich Theodor Müller (1821-97), a German biologist who emigrated to Brazil. It is thanks to them that we are familiar with Batesian and Müllerian mimicry, the evolution of harmless organisms to look and act like a dangerous species. Hoverflies (Syrphidae) and Sawflies (Symphyta) carry this off brilliantly, looking as wasp-like as one would like to be without the sting in the tail.
Next month we will have a closer look at the world of the Hymenoptera, and their importance to our lives. In the meantime, wrap up against the cold, enjoy the sunshine and please be aware that not all stripes are bad!
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
Katherine: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
Katherine: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
Katherine: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katherine: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.”
The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare
Quite so, Will!
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Quarry Wood flower photography: Lorna Neville; Img 6: Tiger by Leszek Leszczy, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; Img 7: Coral Snake by Bernard Dupont, used under CC2.0; Img 8: Zebra by Jon Mountjoy, used under CC2.0; Img 9: Clown Fish by Tony Hlsgett, used under CC2.0; Img 10: Wasp by Peter Pearson, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; Img 11: Hornet by David Brown, used under CC2.0; Img 12: Bumble-bee 1 by Jaroslav Mrkvicka, used under CC2.0; Img 13: Beatrice the Honey Bee by Bob Peterson, used under CC2.0; Img 16: Hoverfly by Hamish Irvine, used under CC2.0; Img 17: Sawfly Abia (Zaraea) fasciata by Nigel Jones, used under CC2.0