It’s complicated

By Athayde Tonhasca

Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) was brought to the British Isles in 1839 as an addition to Kew Gardens’ collection of ornamental plants. As usually happens with introduced species, Himalayan balsam escaped into the wild, causing consternation ever since. It has spread throughout damp woodlands and along rivers, flourishing in thick stands up to 2 metres high that overshadow the local vegetation. This plant does well in a variety of climatic conditions and soil types, and has a tremendous capacity to spread.

So nobody likes Himalayan balsam. Nobody but pollinators.

Himalayan balsam © MurielBendel, Wikipedia Creative Commons
Himalayan balsam © MurielBendel, Wikipedia Creative Commons

This invasive is a nectar factory. Each flower produces about 0.5 mg of sugar per hour, a rate far higher than any European plant; flowers of most species yield less than 0.1 mg/h. And because the plant flowers late in the season, nectar it available at a time when other sources start to become scarce. So naturally, bumble bees, honey bees and wasps go for it with gusto. And there is something in store for hoverflies as well; they feed on the copious amounts of pollen produced by these flowers. Predictably, the number of bumble bees and other insects increase in areas invaded by Himalayan balsam. 

This abundance of food could have undesirable side effects. Many bees get the proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and amino acids they need from a variety of pollen sources. But thanks to the plentiful and readily available pollen from Himalayan balsam, bees stick to this easy option: in some situations, up to 90% of the pollen collected by honey bees comes from this plant, with unknown consequences to bees’ development and health. The profusion of pollen and nectar could also indirectly harm other plants: if native species receive fewer visitors, their pollination could be compromised. But the evidence for such outcomes is contradictory. Some studies suggest that Himalayan balsam reduces flower visitation and seed production of native plants; others have demonstrated no differences, or a ‘magnet effect’: Himalayan balsam attracted pollinators to itself and to plants nearby. 

A marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) and a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), two Himalayan balsam beneficiaries © Charles James Sharp (L) and André Karwath, Wikipedia Creative Commons
A marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) and a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum), two Himalayan balsam beneficiaries © Charles James Sharp (L) and André Karwath, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Alien species are a hot and controversial topic among conservationists. Some highlight the damage caused by introduced species to the native fauna and flora, habitats, the economy and even human health. But other conservationists point out that alien species may have neutral or positive impacts: that is, they are alien but not necessarily invasive. The invasiveness of Himalayan balsam has been well documented, but there are mitigating factors in its favour: in some situations, this plant had no effect on local species composition, or at worst it only replaced a few ruderal species (plants that colonise areas that have been disturbed). And its presence may check the spread of harmful alternatives such as the giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum).

Assessing the impact of alien species is important because a great deal of money and resources have been spent on controlling or eradicating them, quite often unsuccessfully. It is usually assumed that invasive plants are bad for pollinators, but there isn’t much evidence to support this assumption. Like many aspects of species’ ecology, data are scarce, results are often contradictory, and generalisations are risky. In summary: it’s complicated.

Insect inspiration

Insects and football don’t often mix. An influx of flies when England met Tunisia in Volgograd during the 2018 World Cup was a rare occasion. It wasn’t warmly welcomed by players or spectators. Two years earlier at Euro 2016, Silver Y moths were clearly visible as Portugal and France contested the final. But there are a few insects embedded in ‘the beautiful game’ in a more celebrated fashion – in club nicknames.

The recent televised FA Cup tie between Brentford and Leicester City featured several shots of the London club’s badge – which features a bee. Brentford are nicknamed ‘The Bees’ and football writers have long loved the opportunity to craft match headlines centred around that favourite old phrase about a game having a ‘sting in the tail’. A late goal at Brentford is almost sure to provoke this phrase in some guise or other.

At one time the Brentford crest resembled a shield, and featured a traditional skep hive and a couple of impressively stout bees.  A recent make-over has delivered a modern round badge featuring a single bee which is now the proud focal point.

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Brentford are pushing for promotion to the top flight, about to move to a sparkling new stadium, and football headline writers may go into overdrive if there they were to meet Watford who go by the nickname of ‘The Hornets’.

We can presume Watford’s nickname is intended to denote a menacing and powerful force. The connection can seem confusing when the club badge is clearly dominated by an image of a ‘hart’ or stag. Their ‘hornets’ nickname appears to date to the 1960s and is likely based simply on their predominantly yellow and black colours; there was only a brief window when the badge on their strip actually featured a hornet.

England doesn’t have a monopoly on insect nicknames.

In Scotland championship club Alloa Athletic are well known as The Wasps and their vivid gold and black hooped jerseys make the choice of this nickname an easy one to appreciate. Their Recreation Park home enjoys lovely views of the Ochils and Alloa may have had their nature inspired nickname since around the 1880s.

Perhaps not surprisingly the current Alloa club crest prominently features a wasp. It’s not a slavish representation by any means, and indeed has a cartoon element with the wasp depicted in a ‘superman’ pose complete with bulging muscles.  But the nickname has stuck over the years, as have the club’s colours, and as a consequence Alloa have a distinctive identity.

Football is game steeped in tradition, and the retaining of insects in these nicknames and club crests is evidence of the importance of history to many football clubs. It also shows that folk notice insects in many different ways.

It is one thing to have an insect nickname, what about when the actual club is named after an insect?

Since 1886 that’s been the case in the Swiss city of Zurich, where one of the local football clubs is called Grasshoppers. It’s a fitting note to end on as they were in fact formed by a Scotsman – albeit going by the rather Welsh sounding name of Tom Griffiths. The name Grasshoppers is said to have reflected an energetic style of play and lithe athleticism. They visited Scotland in 1958 to play a floodlit friendly match in Glasgow, but apparently it was so foggy that evening it was hard to see from one end of the pitch to the other, let alone determine if the Swiss side lived up to their ‘springy’ name.

So insects and football.  Not an obvious relationship, but there nevertheless.