Honey monster: watch out for the violet carpenter bee

Is it a bird? Is it a bat? No: it's a mind-bogglingly huge bee - the biggest ever to set up home in an English garden. And its arrival from Europe has caused quite a buzz


There's only one possible reaction when you first see it. What the hell is that? It looks like a bee but it's bigger than any bee you've seen before, and it doesn't have bee-type yellow and orange stripes - it appears to be deep blue, all over, as it lumbers through the air.

It's about three times the size of the biggest bumblebee. It may have astonished you on a holiday in the Med or other warm climes but otherwise you're unlikely to have encountered anything like it. But now you can see it in Britain - for the violet carpenter bee, the biggest and most remarkable-looking bee in Europe, has crossed the Channel and has begun breeding in this country.

Take heart. Even though it is one of the scariest-looking insects you're ever likely to catch sight of (typically measuring at least 25mm in length but appearing considerably larger in flight), it is the violet, not the violent carpenter bee. A killer bee it is not; it is not aggressive and is unlikely to sting you. The name comes from the violet wings, which appear to give a blue sheen to its black body when in flight.

In the past century, it has occasionally strayed to Britain, and has made one or two unsuccessful breeding attempts but now, to the intense excitement of Britain's entomological community, it has become established. A colony has been set up and is thriving in a dead Bramley apple tree, in the garden of retired company director Derick Walton and his wife Janet, in Shepshed, near Leicester. The bees first appeared last summer. Remarkably, they have survived the winter and appear to be flourishing.

The reason, almost certainly, is climate change. The appearance here of Xylocopa violacea is simply the most vivid example yet of the phenomenon of insects from continental Europe moving north into Britain as the climate warms.

In the past decade, a whole series of continental bees, wasps, moths, dragonflies and grasshoppers has appeared here, and their arrival has been closely monitored by the well-known naturalist Peter Marren. "It's an increasingly-obvious phenomenon," he said. "New insects from continental Europe are appearing here more and more, and it's virtually certain that climate change is responsible. Each insect has its own story, of course, but the thing that's propelling the entire phenomenon is the warming climate, without a doubt."

Of the violet carpenter bee, Mr Marren said: "It's going to come as a bit of a shock to people in Britain, as it's so much bigger than any of our native bees, and we've got some really big bumblebees - but they're nothing compared to the violet carpenter bee. It's an incredible size - a colossal great thing."

Several continental bees and wasps have set up home in the UK in recent years, some so unfamiliar that they do not yet even have English common names, such as the large social wasp Dolichovespula media, which created widespread concern among gardeners when it first arrived in the UK in about 2000 because of its size. It is bigger than any British wasp, and will sting if disturbed.

Other wasps that have recently come into Britain include the bee-wolf Philanthus triangulum, which hunts bees for food, and the French spider-eating wasp Episyron gallicum, newly discovered breeding in Bedfordshire, which catches spiders, paralyses them with a sting, and lays its eggs on top of them - so the wasp larvae feed on living spider.

A rather less scary arrival is the brown-banded carder bee, Bombus humilis - a continental species that has now begun breeding on brownfield sites in the Thames estuary.

The situation is similar with lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). The charity Butterfly Conservation has been tracking the new moths arriving in Britain; it reckons we have been getting about one new species a year from the Continent for the past decade. Most are perfectly benign (with their curious names, such as Clancy's rustic or Langmaid's yellow underwing) but one species in particular, the horse chestnut leaf-miner moth Cameraria ohridella, first recorded in Wimbledon in 2002, has now attacked conker trees all across southern England, making their leaves appear brown and wilted in summer.

A much more attractive moth occurrence has been the increase in numbers of the charming hummingbird hawk-moth Macroglossum stellatarum, which does indeed move in and out of flowers, seeking nectar, just like a hummingbird. These moths have always visited Britain but now they are overwintering as adults and successfully breeding here. Last year, thousands were visible right across the country, as far north as Scotland. "You couldn't miss the hummingbird hawk moths last summer," Peter Marren remarks.

Two butterfly species, once annual migrants from Europe, have also started overwintering in Britain and can thus now be considered resident species - the red admiral Vanessa atalanta and the clouded yellow Colias croceus. The fact that red admirals are now surviving the winter (as adults) is the reason so many of them are being seen in early spring. Clouded yellows are now surviving the cold months as caterpillars and the larvae have been found on the undercliffs at Bournemouth - one of the country's warmest spots.

The list goes on and on. Several new dragonfly and damselfly species have been found breeding in Britain in the past 10 years, ranging from the small red-eyed damselfly Erythromma viridulum first recorded in the UK in Essex in 1999, and now breeding as far north as the Midlands, to the lesser emperor dragonfly Anax parthenope , usually thought of as a Mediterranean species, first recorded in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, in 1996.

Until last year, perhaps the most spectacular insect new arrival was the sickle-bearing bush cricket, Phaneroptera falcata, a large green grasshopper-relative which turned up last summer in Hastings Country Park, breeding on rosebay willowherb.

But now we have the violet carpenter bee to top the lot. To their astonishment, Mr and Mrs Walton first noticed several of the bees buzzing around the dahlias in their large wildlife-friendly garden (hedgehogs, rabbits, foxes) last July; later they realised the bees had made a nest in the dead apple tree. Eventually, their daughter Julie identified the beast from an insect field guide, and their son Robert managed to get pictures of the big bee.

After they realised the bees had survived the winter, they posted a notice on a wildlife website, which created great excitement, not least in BWARS - the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society. Lizzie Peat, an entomologist for Leicestershire County Council and a BWARS member, visited the garden and made a positive identification, which other BWARS members have confirmed. "It's very exciting," said Ms Peat.

When The Independent visited the garden this week we got several glimpses of Xylocopa violacea - and we can say without fear of contradiction that, besides symbolising a whole new era in British wildlife, it is quite some bee.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention