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
It seems that as far as the weather was concerned I picked the right week to leave the country, as while I was enjoying (some) sun in central France, the UK was experiencing somewhat variable, and at times very wet weather. And in typical Bank Holiday fashion, today has seen a return of cool, wet weather, which has put off all but a few hardy souls from visiting.
As for the birds, I perhaps chose the wrong two weeks to take my summer holiday, as I missed several good birds - though is there ever a good time to be away from Minsmere?
Highlights from the last two weeks on the Scrape included a pectoral sandpiper for a couple of days, a Temminck's stint for a day, upto ten wood sandpipers and several little stints and green sandpipers.
A pectoral sandpiper by Jon Evans
A wryneck spent three days around the pond - though sadly there has been no sign in today's rain. Hopefully this will be the forerunner of more as last summer/autumn saw at least six of these unusual woodpeckers visiting Minsmere. It's also been a good couple of weeks for passage migrants, with several sightings of both pied and spotted flycatchers, redstarts, whinchats and wheatears, as well as the usual lesser whitethroats, whitethroats and blackcaps. Perhaps the pick of the small migrants was a tree sparrow that was caught during the final Waveney Bird Club ringing demo of the year on Thursday. This is a rare migrant at Minsmere, usually in the autumn, and a difficult species to find in coastal Suffolk.
A tree sparrow by Jon Evans
Our avocets have mostly moved to the estuaries for the winter, but twelve remained this morning. There are good numbers of the commoner waders still on the Scrape, though, including 100+ black-tailed godwits, 50+ dunlins, 20+ ringed plovers and three common sandpipers. Duck numbers are starting to build too, with a little flock of 15 wigeons on East Scrape this morning, while the Suffolk coast population of feral barnacle geese are spending more time on the reserve - 250+ were present yesterday.
While bitterns, marsh harriers and bearded tits remain quite elusive (especially in the wet and windy weather), otters and kingfishers continue to be seen daily at Island Mere and/or Bittern Hide. More unusually, a kingfisher was seen at the pond this morning.
The rain has not been conducive to good insect watching, but both hummingbird hawkmoth and broad-bordered bee-hawkmoth were seen around the buddleias outside the toilet block over the last few days, and a clouded yellow butterfly in the dunes.
With September starting tomorrow, I'm sure there are many more migrants still to arrive and pass through at Minsmere in the coming weeks. We're also getting ready to start the red deer rut safaris on 12 September. This is a great way to watch the deer - see http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-405405 for further details, or call us on 01728 648281 to book your tour.
Guest blog by: Alison Cross, Learning Assistant
Ian is very good at keeping us all updated about the wildlife seen at Minsmere, while I am going to update you about the little featherless two legged creatures...children! This week is the fifth week of the summer holidays, (for some parents it might feel like the tenth week) but there is still plenty of things to do at Minsmere.
Pond dipping on Mondays has been very popular, with children learning about what lives in a pond. One child said “I learnt that there are many different species in water, it was fascinating”. Also on Mondays, children have been making lots of frog masks, dragonfly pegs and jazzy newts, plus looking at pond creatures under our microscope. Harry said “Using a microscope to identify species was awesome”.
Photo by Christine Hall
Tuesdays at Minsmere are owl pellet dissection days in the Discovery Centre. Over the last five weeks a variety of mammal bones have been identified from pellets, such as field voles, shrews and even a moles skull. The Hendley family loved the owl pellet day and said “we had lots of fun and learned a lot”. Another family even planned their holiday around coming to Minsmere for pellet dissection, “we discovered online that there was the opportunity to dissect owl pellets, so we organised our holiday dates and days to be able to do this. It was fantastic, we could have stayed all day, but because we wanted to see the ‘living’ wildlife, we took our finds home to mount up!”
Skulls and bones by Christine Hall
Owl pellet dissection photo by Oscar Dewhurst
Nature walks on Wednesdays have been really popular, with butterflies, bee-wolves and ant lions high on the spotting list. Bella said “I liked looking at the creatures’ habitats”. While indoors children have been creating their own minibeasts and birds to take home.
Bird ringing on Thursday has defiantly been the highlight of the week, with the bird ringers catching a range of birds such as bearded tits, willow warblers and lots of blue tits (64 yesterday). Some children were lucky enough to assist in the releasing of these birds, after they have been ringed, weighed and measured (the birds, not the children).
Ringed bearded tit by Christine Hall
The exciting eel family trail also started this week, where children have been following Evie the eel around Minsmere learning about her life cycle and how Minsmere has helped her to survive. Evie has lots of questions and activities, so pick up the trail sheet when you arrive at reception. The trail runs daily until 27 September.
Photo by Christine Hall
Take a look at the rest of Minsmere’s school holiday events via our website:
Once the summer holidays end and the children are back to school, why not bring your under 5s to our new toddler events running every second Monday of every month. Minsmere Reedlings aims to get your little one closer to nature and a bit muddy. To book and for more details call 01728 648780 or see our website:
Photo by Jasper Mattias
Hope you enjoy the rest of your summer, whatever the weather!