Birds, bees and flies in disguise: the secret wildlife of Heathrow

From dancing birds to fancy-dress spiders, butterflies to birds of prey, Heathrow is home to a surprising variety of creatures. We asked Heathrow’s Biodiversity Manager, Adam Cheeseman, to lift the lid on the urban wildlife you might not know about.

Splash dance: birds who ballet

Great crested grebes

Great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

You know spring is here when the grebes begin their love dance. They’re pretty wild-looking to start with – all ginger sideburns and ‘Hoxton fin’ topknots – but the birds’ courtship routine is one of Britain’s natural wonders.

They call to each other across the water. They swim up face-to-face. They bob, they shake, they strut their plumes. And just when you think it’s all over, they dive, then rear up out of the water, paddling furiously to stay upright while exchanging carefully chosen bouquets of pondweed.

Later in the year they can be seen giving piggybacks to their ludicrously cute stripy chicks. The grebes are regulars at four of Heathrow’s 13 conservation areas.

Adam says: Once hunted for their head feathers, until there were just 24 birds left in Britain. This species was influential in the founding of ‘The Fur and Feather League’, which was the beginnings of the RSPB.

The orchid that thinks it’s a bee

Bee orchids

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Some flowers attract pollinating insects with nectar. Some use attractive scent or colours. But the bee orchid is famously sneaky. It relies on another form of attraction entirely.

The flower’s velvety lip and translucent wings look for all the world like a female bee – to other bees, at least. It draws in the hapless males with the promise of love, but instead gives him nothing more than a shower of pollen on his back.

In June and July this uncommon orchid can be found in dry grassland at nine biodiversity sites around Heathrow.

Adam says: This orchid actually self-fertilises, as the species of bee that would normally do the job doesn’t occur in Britain. None of the British bee species ‘fit’ in the correct way so the plants have to do it themselves!

The fly that thinks it’s a bee

Great bee-fly

Great bee-fly (Bombylius major)

More subterfuge, and again it’s bad news for bees. This sneaky fly is a bee mimic, with its stout, furry body and its habit of hovering over flowers. It even drinks nectar through that long snout (which is perfectly harmless).

But there’s a sinister side to all this. The disguise helps it get close to the nests of solitary wasps and bees. It flicks its eggs into the nest, or else sticks them to a nearby flower for the parents to pick up. On hatching, the larvae eat the bees’ stored food before starting on their hosts’ young.

Adam says: Probably about as cute a fly can be! They counter this by being parasitic on solitary bees, wasps and beetles.

The spider that thinks it’s a wasp

Female wasp spider on web

Wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi)

It’s big, black and yellow, but this fierce-looking beast is a harmless relative of the regular garden spider.

Mind you, while it’s no threat to humans (at least to non-arachnophobes), it’s a different matter for the prey caught in Argiope’s 30cm web.

So, too, for the unlucky males, which are a quarter of the female’s size – for them, mating usually turns out to be fatal.

The wasp stripes are thought to help the female spider lure insect prey into its web.

Adam says: Until recently this species was restricted to the south coast. Later, warmer summers now mean the spiders have spread northwards, but this is still largely a southern species in Britain. They feed mainly on grasshoppers.

The fly that thinks it’s a hornet

Hornet hoverfly

Hornet-mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

Hoverflies specialise in mimicking fiercer insects, usually as a defence against predators. And this is the king of hoverflies, growing up to 2.5cm (1in) long with a 4cm wingspan.

Despite its bold brown/yellow colours and buzzing flight, Volucella is a harmless nectar feeder. But it does lay its eggs in bee, wasp and hornet nests, where the larvae live as well-protected guests.

It was a rare visitor to Britain until the 1940s but has since become more common in the South. It seems to prefer urban areas.

Adam says: Many insects use Batesian mimicry, where a harmless insect looks like something more dangerous. The hornet-mimic hoverfly does this very well. It is one of our largest fly species.

Photogenic flora and fauna

Some of Adam’s picks for Heathrow’s most camera-friendly life forms.

Cowslips

Cowslip (Primula veris): Rare in the local region but found at seven sites around Heathrow.

Peacock butterfly

Peacock butterfly (Aglais io): If ever there was a reason not to clear beds of nettle then this must be it. The black, spiky caterpillars of this butterfly feed on nettles.

Ruddy darter dragonfly

Ruddy darter dragonfly (Sympetrum sanguineum): The nymphs of dragonflies live underwater for up to seven years, depending on the species. When mature enough, they emerge and split out of their skins to transform into the adults.

Ear fungus

Ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae): A jelly fungus that grows mainly on elder trees. Its scientific name comes from the story of Judas, who is said to have hanged himself from an elder tree after betraying Jesus. It is edible. When eaten raw it has the texture of a crunchy wine gum.

robin

Robin (Erithacus rubecula): Just because! In winter both males and females sing because both sexes hold their own territories.

Lichen

Maritime sunburst lichen (Xanthoria parietina): Lichens are actually a partnership of two species – a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium. The species illustrated is only yellow when situated in direct sunlight. When it grows in shaded areas it is greenish, because its built-in “sunblock” isn’t required.

Scarlet elf cup fungus

Scarlet elf cup fungus (Sarcoscypha austriaca): Excellent decomposers of dead wood, like many species of fungus. In the past these were collected, dried and used as decorative ornaments.

Space for nature at Heathrow

Heathrow conservation site

You might not know it, but Heathrow has 13 areas set aside for nature conservation, covering an area the size of 80 football pitches. They’re currently home to over 3,000 species including grass snakes, soprano pipistrelle bats and vast numbers of flora, fauna and fungi. You can keep up to speed with the latest discoveries by following @HeathrowBio on Twitter.

Most of our biodiversity sites are closed to the public, and that lack of disturbance is good news for many species that might otherwise be scared off by people.

We have now held the Biodiversity Benchmark Award from The Wildlife Trusts for 10 years in a row.

Our work on biodiversity is part of the airport’s wider sustainability strategy, Heathrow 2.0.

Heathrow 2.0 – find out more