Years ago I interviewed the great thriller writer Peter O’Donnell, creator of the immortal Modesty Blaise. I asked him about Nanny Prendergast — one of his better villains – she’s in The Xanadu Talisman, read it for yourself – and asked: “Where the hell did that idea come from?”
Laughing, shaking his head in helpless bewilderment, he replied: “No idea.”
It’s a question I’m often tempted to ask when I look at the creatures of the wild world – especially those that live in rainforest. How the hell did they ever come up with that idea? So here’s a bird that asks: “What can I do to get more than my fair share of food?”
“I know – pretend to be a bee!”
And that’s precisely what the bumblebee hummingbird does. It doesn’t get the name just for being small – and it’s small even by hummingbird standards, no more than three inches long (7.5 cm) and weighing three-quarters of an ounce (2.2 grams). It also flies in the jerky, preoccupied manner of a bee and the hum of its wings sounds like the buzz of a bee.
Hummingbirds are almost laughably aggressive birds. Their feeding territory is their life, and they will busily and nosily repel all species of hummingbirds from their patch. But the bumblebee hummingbird can slip into the same patch of flowering rainforest, and the resident hummingbird will pay it no mind: it’s only a bloody bee, ignore it, it’s not a threat. Their disguise allows them to drink their fill of nectar, hiding in plain sight in the classic manner.
And so armed with this cunning plan, bumblebee hummingbirds make a respectable living in the rainforests of Mexico. The males wear a dull black bib – but when they change direction and catch the light, this throat-patch explodes into a pink bright enough to blind you.
Humans need the rainforest as much as bumblebee hummingbirds: so it seems to me a good idea to hold onto the forests we’ve got left. The great forces of evolution created things that the most fertile minds in human history could never dream up. But humanity continues to create villains: shame Modesty Blaise isn’t around to deal with them.