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It was a sad message I tweeted from @bugmanjones last Monday: “The hornet nest in Dulwich Park has been destroyed. Council vandalism or ‘helpful’ busybody? Who knows. Nature conservation at its worst.”
I was alerted by a friend, Penny, who was in the Park taking photos after the destruction. She was distraught: “there were maggots everywhere”. It seems the entire nest, combs and brood had been unceremoniously ripped out from the hollow tree where they had been living peaceably for months. I was left wondering what had prompted this terrible slaughter.
My expectations were later confirmed. The nest had been deliberately destroyed by the park’s ‘in-house’ team of contractors for reasons of ‘health and safety’. Yet again, these majestic and beautiful beasts had met a foul end because of their ill-deserved reputation and wholly misunderstood life style.
Despite their size and loud buzzing, hornets, Vespa crabro, are the most docile of our social wasps, and also the most secretive. It was a wonder to see them circling over the compost heaps up at the local allotments, or settled chewing bark on a tree trunk. Then a few days ago I saw one flying in the street, examining a Reliant Robin for some reason. My heart soared.
They first appeared in the area around 2001, and about that time I was shown the end-of-season remains of a nest in a small hollow tree in Sydenham Hill Wood. I had heard of them being spotted in Dulwich Park, but had never been fortunate enough to see them myself.
There has been a definite and well-monitored spread of hornets into parts of south-east England (and London) where they were previously absent. But unlike other wasps, they are not loft-dwellers and are unlikely to take up residence in floor-spaces, sheds or holes in the ground. They are mainly woodland insects, and nest in hollow trunks, branches or logs. Hence their predilection for Dulwich, the most heavily wooded part of the capital.
It appears that the nest was spotted rather late in the year and a warning sign was put up nearby, a few days before the demolition. Until then, I doubt many people had noticed the hornets going about their daily activity of bringing back dead insects to feed to their grubs.
I don’t know whether it was panic from the public, or the park team’s desire to avoid potential claims and blame, that triggered the final elimination. Slightly disturbingly the local ecology officer knew nothing about the presence of these amazing insects until after the deed was done. He didn’t want to get drawn into an argument with me about whether they were nuisance or nice, claiming he was aware of the benefits of hornets, but also the stigma attached. He also did not appreciate any irony in his final email comment that he had recently seen a clouded yellow in another local park. But I saw this as a telling remark, that even he was more interested in the pretty but ultimately trivial observation of a fleetingly migrant butterfly, than the eco-genocide of a colony of nearly-top predators.
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