Some old friends, now in their 80’s, emailed me a few days ago. They had a bee or a wasp problem, the husband wrote; but his wife was fearful that whatever was emerging from a hole in the turf at the end of their rather large garden might harm them, or their enormous but dim golden retriever. There was also a horse, an elderly Arab mare, to worry about. “We don’t want to harm them, whatever they are” he went on, “but if you knew a way of persuading them to move on elsewhere, we’d sleep easier.”
It must be fifteen years since I gave my bees away, but a few people still think of me as some sort of expert in anything with four wings and six legs. Indeed, my beekeeping days have left me with a great affection for any and all sorts of bees, and I am pleased to advise and help where I can. I was sure the ones keeping my old friends awake were sure to be bumbles of some sort, their nest an abandoned mouse hole, and their potential for causing harm little greater than zero. The challenge would be to convince my friends that short of sticking their noses down the mouse hole, they, the retriever and the Arab were perfectly safe.
So a few days later, off we went to the little wooded hamlet where we used to live, and our ex-neighbours still do. Together my old friend and I clambered up the steep bank to the glade housing the offending insects. “I took another look this morning – they seem to have made the hole bigger,” he said.
Well, it was certainly no mouse hole any longer. Nine inches in diameter, a foot deep and surrounded by excavated spoil, the pit contained some fragments of wax cups, some shreds of dried moss, a few dead bees and one or two live ones wandering hopelessly round in the wreckage of what the previous day had been a cosy protective nest. On the grass near the hole, a gigantic queen, as big as my thumb she seemed, was still just alive, surrounded by the bodies of more dead workers. She reared up in a threatening pose when I touched her, though it was clear that, abandoned and defenceless, she would be dead in hours.
It was only the second time in a quarter of a century that I had seen the results of a badger attack on a bumble bee colony. There was something deeply disturbing in the sheer devastation that one animal could wreak on a defenceless nest. Nearly everything had been eaten – some scraps of wax were all that was left, and the bodies of the workers, who could not have had any chance of fighting back against such a well-armoured predator attacking at night.
I explained to my friends that the few bees left alive would be dead in hours, and told them what creature it was that had solved their bee ‘problem’ so efficiently and brutally. Sadly we left the hole to the workerless queen and her few dying daughters.
That little corner of Hertfordshire had just one badger sett when I lived there. My friends told me that there are several setts now, and I wondered as we drove home about the wisdom of a blanket policy to protect a species that, without any predators, not even Man, is now free to spread and reproduce without limitation. I still wonder about the effects of this on other species, and whether, in the imbalanced ecology that we have created, our hedgehogs, ground nesting birds, and the bumble bees (not to mention the dairy farmers) have not become the unintended victims of a well-meaning but misguided law, framed by those who do not understand what they are meddling with.