The badgers and the bees

Badgers are blamed for many things, especially by those who wish to see them ‘culled’ or ‘managed’ (or in plain English, killed). One of the ‘crimes’ with which the badger is charged by such people is the destruction of bumblebee nests. It is widely known that bumblebees are in decline – but is Brock responsible?

Googling for badgers and bumblebees quickly leads to a range of accusations which certainly seem to put the badger in the frame:

* Back in 2003, the National Gamekeeper’s Association told Defra that “Some gamekeepers … in the North of England,  say that virtually every bumble bee nest now gets grubbed out by a badger.”

* In 2007, Gerald Coles wrote to the Biologist in response to an article on the demise of the bumblebee, stating that the author “failed to mention that badgers will dig up and eat bumblebee nests and so will only make a bad situation worse. As carnivores with no natural enemies, badgers will increase in numbers until they kill and eat everything possible…”

* Also in 2007, a comment on an article in the Telegraph asked “How can the threatened species of bumblebee re-populate themselves in the provided habitat when their predators are increasing without control? [They] are devastated by the uncontrolled proliferation of the badger population.”

* Last year, in an article in the Daily Mail, Robin Page took a swipe at the badger. “Numbers are so high they are also affecting bumblebees, which they love as a light snack. In addition, badgers are the main reason for the spread of bovine TB in cattle.”

* Finally, Damian Grounds of Help Save Bees recently implicated the badger on Twitter. His tweet in response to another Guardian opinion-piece – “Interesting article on the ‘Badger Cull Debate’ as badgers attack underground bumblebee nests too” – was then retweeted by others.

So what is the truth about the badgers and the bees? Well, badgers do indeed dig up the nests of bumble bees and eat the unfortunate occupants. You can watch a badger doing this in a short black and white film made by British Pathé  in 1959 (click to play and then move the little white bar below the control buttons to about 9 minutes 50 seconds to get straight to the badger segment). You can also see a photo of a bees’ nest dug out by a badger on my Badger Pages website, and one right here which I took at the end of June 2008 (in the larger version on Flickr at least three dead bees can be seen lying on the sandy soil excavated by the badger). I saw several other dug out bumblebees’ nests in the same wood on the day when I took this photo, and no doubt gamekeepers and other country folk have also witnessed the widespread destruction of such nests by badgers. The results of Brock’s labours, particularly in areas with sandy soil, are quite easy to spot (though of course no-one knows just what proportion of the total number of bumblebee nests these represent). Less visible are the depredations of some rather smaller mammals: mice. Check out Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for an early reference to this, and Damian Grounds’ Help Save Bees blog about the red tailed bumblebee for a modern day one.

Despite the fact that badgers (and mice) predate bumblebee nests, it is very unlikely that they are significant contributors to the decline of their prey. Anecdotal evidence for the badger’s innocence can be found in a report on the bumblebees of Sulehay Nature Reserve here in Northamptonshire, which states that “Badgers are major predators of bumblebee nests on the reserve, but the bumblebees thrive despite their depredations.”

Even stronger evidence is available in the form of two recent papers by scientists who have made in-depth studies of the bumblebees’ plight:  Decline and Conservation of Bumble Bees, by D. Goulson et al (2008, in Annual Review of Entomology, 53: 191–208) and Bumblebee vulnerability and conservation world-wide, by Paul Williams and Juliet Osborne (2009, in Apidologie, 40: 367–387). These publications show that it is the activities of we humans, not badgers or mice, which pose the biggest threat to the survival of bumblebees. Some of the key points from the scientific papers include:

* Several species of bumblebee are declining not only in Britain but also on mainland Europe, Asia, and in North America. (‘Our’ badger, Meles meles, occurs – at much lower densities than in the British Isles – right across Europe and Asia, which means that bumblebees are declining across their range regardless of the size the local badger population.)

* Although the ranges and numbers of most species of bumblebee in Britain have declined, with some species becoming extinct, a few species have increased their ranges and now occur more widely across in Britain.

* Many scientists believe that climate change has played a part in the decline of bumblebees across the northern hemisphere, although the effects are not straightforward: some British species have become rare in the south of England, while others have become rare in the northern parts of their ranges.

* Bumblebee deaths have been reported in the UK following spraying of certain pesticides on oilseed rape and field bean crops.

* The primary cause of bumblebee declines in western Europe is the intensification of farming practices, particularly during the latter half of the twentieth century. This has affected bees in two ways, loss of food plants (a large proportion of the species of flower upon which many bees rely for nectar and pollen have declined over the past 80 years) and loss of nest sites (not only through the removal of hedgerows and ploughing up of old pastures but also by the direct destruction of nests by farm machinery).

Badgers are mentioned nowhere in either of the above papers. And while the author of one of those papers, Dave Goulson, is aware that the badger is one of the main predators of bumblebees, he does not blame them for the decline of the bees. In fact, he stated in an article (Getting the buzz) in the April 2004 edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine that “The single change that nobbled bumblebees was the switch from hay meadows to silage production, 20 or 30 years ago. Silage is made from fertilised grass, with few flowers in it, and is cut five or six times a year. Good bumblebee flowers such as clovers and vetches don’t survive in it.” Furthermore, badgers have inspired Goulson to devise a novel method of finding bumblebee nests to assist with his research.

While badgers have been an inspiration for Dave Goulson, for others they are simply a scapegoat.  Not content with vilifying the badger as the primary source of bovine TB in cattle, they attempt to justify their calls for a mass slaughter by blaming Brock for other problems which are not of the animal’s making. The same people often accuse badgers of large-scale destruction of ground nesting birds and their eggs (whereas scientific studies consistently find that birds form only a very small part of the badger’s diet and are in any case often taken as carrion) and hedgehogs. While there is strong evidence that badgers have a negative impact on hedgehog numbers, I suspect that many of those who use this as ‘justification’ for badger culling have little genuine concern for the hedgehog, particularly as this species also predates upon the nests of ground-nesting birds.

By way of a conclusion to this article, I will point out three things that badgers do, which are rarely if ever mentioned by their critics. Two of them were noted  in the British Pathé  film I linked to above, in which, incidentally, the narrator relates that “the badger does far more good than harm and is officially listed as a useful animal.” Firstly, they dig out and eat the young of rabbits (the photo below shows a rabbit’s nest which I extracted from a breeding burrow raided by a badger last month – the badger dug straight down into the nest chamber exactly as described in the Pathé  film). Secondly, they destroy a great many wasp nests (see the example on my Badger Pages website).  And finally, they suppress the fox population: large scale killing of badgers in Defra’s culling trials resulted in “markedly higher fox densities” (see the scientific paper by Iain Trewby et al [2008, in Biology Letters, 4: 170-172], or the more digestible BBC News report on the study).

All of these are things you might expect farmers and landowners to welcome, but it seems that the hatred for badgers harboured by some has blinded them to the benefits of leaving badgers alone. How will the ecology north Pembrokeshire be affected when the local badgers are wiped out? As we have seen with bees, the web of life is intricate and meddling with it often has unintended consequences. To those who call for badger culling, I say “be careful what you wish for.”

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3 Responses to The badgers and the bees

  1. NorfolkBadgers says:

    Well done Steve.


  2. Jo Bates says:

    Excellent article as always Steve.

    Lancs Badger Group

  3. Thank you for another informative blog. I am a member of Lancashire Badger Group and your blog is now regularly referred to on our facebook page.

    I feel it is so important for us ‘brockwatchers’ to be aware of the arguments both for and against the badger. Only then can we see the cull debate from all angles and argue the badger’s corner – fully informed!

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