25 July 2014

Marvellous Wasps

I was high up on a moor, on the rocks of a granite tor on a hot sunny day. The air was clear, sweet and, as I reached the top, filled with a loud hum...
Could there be a feral colony of bees in the rocks? Surely not, this is a hard place in winter. 
I headed towards the sound and saw a swirling of marvellous insects. They were certainly not honeybees, they were very large and their noise was out of proportion to their number.

Carefully, I moved closer and saw a writhing knot about the size of a cooking apple on a flat sunwarmed slab of granite. As I watched I saw that in the centre was a Queen, she was mating with her entourage of drones. The competition for the lady was fierce! At the peak of the excitement, she was barely visible in the melee and unable to move.

Then, one by one they left her, until she shrugged off her last suitor (who was plainly not up to the task in hand) and wandered off into the long grass for a well earned rest.

It was an extraordinary sight, lasting around fifteen minutes, which left me wondering. Always it seems to me that there are more questions than answers. For example, this was a seemingly unlikely location - had they chased their Queen up this high perhaps? and the drones did not appear to die, at least not immediately. And it left me pondering the mating of my more familiar honeybees. Honeybee Queens, we are told, always mate on the wing, but like so many things in beekeeping - how do we know?

My beekeeping books did not help much. The University of Florida had online references: "Copulation in the honey bee usually occurs above ground in flight (Gary 1963). Consequently, many of the observations of the mating process have been accomplished through manipulation of the queen and/or drone [ie, Woyke and Ruttner 1958, Gary 1963, Koeniger et al.1979]." So that's a "usually" on the wing, not an "always"?

Now, there's one local beekeeper, Andrew Halstead, who is an expert on all insect matters. He says : "Honeybee mating is rarely observed because it does appear to take place high in the air. If it did occur at low level or on the ground, there would be more eye witness records of mating taking place. Honeybees are known to have drone assembly areas where male honeybees congregate on sunny days, and these are often on hill tops. What I have never been able to understand is how the virgin queens are supposed to know where to go to find these assemblies. Virgin queens produce a scent trail to attract the males, which would seem to make mating assembly areas redundant."

A fellow walker arrived with a camera just as the mating throng broke up. This provided a photo good enough for Andrew to be able to tell me that I'd seen one of the social wasps - either Dolichovespula sylvestris or D. norwegica. What marvellous insects!

Marion Malcher, with many thanks to Andrew Halstead.

This article was first published in the WBK Newsletter, 27th July 2011