Why all the fuss?
Imagine a Britain with no honey. It doesn’t seem possible does it? We can’t have honey without bees and bees are one of the many species directly threatened by the invasion of the Asian Hornet or so-called “Murder Hornet”. The Asian Hornet feeds on other pollinators and once it establishes itself in an ecosystem, it becomes dominant very quickly. To gain a better understanding of the problem, I spoke to Mark White, the Asian Hornet Coordinator for Dorset. I wanted to know how concerned we should be, or if this was something to fill up space on a slow news day. What I learned was that not only is this a massive problem, not just for beekeepers, but for other pollinators, for both flora and fauna and also for us and it’s already started.
Have they been found in the UK?
Asian Hornets started off in China and were first discovered in France in 2004, believed to have stowed away on a consignment of pottery shipped from China. From France they have moved south into Northern Spain, they have spread out across France, into Northern Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Channel Islands and now the UK. Yes, they are here.
There have been sporadic sightings across the UK. The last confirmed case was last October in Christchurch here in Dorset where two nests were discovered and destroyed. That is the protocol. If they’re found they must be destroyed.
While we are not overrun with them yet, if they are afforded the time and opportunity to establish a foothold in our ecosystem, they will be very difficult if not impossible to eradicate. We are currently in the containment phase. France and Spain have been there already… is any of this starting to sound familiar? We are at the start of the problem.
Why should we be concerned?
There are two sides to the devastating impact of this non-native. First of all the effect this will have on bees and other pollinators. Thirty-five per cent of the Asian Hornet’s diet is made up of Honey Bees, another 35% consists of other flying insects, most of which are also pollinators… bees, wasps, butterflies and the already endangered European Hornet. It has a remarkable ability to hover in one spot without moving and as soon as something moves towards it, it will take it out mid-flight, take it to the ground, decapitate it and once the head is removed, take the body back to its nest to feed its young. So its our natural pollinators that are threatened. Even wasps pollinate.
In Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain they are now at the infestation stage. To demonstrate just how quickly a containment operation can turn into a full blown infestation, consider this… In 2016 the city identified several nests. Last year there were over 10’000. This is just in the one region.
Then there is public health aspect. Spain are currently finding out just what sort of impact these hornets can have on their day to day lives. Two people have recently died as a result of Asian Hornet stings. Last year, emergency services in Santiago de Compostela received over nine hundred calls for the fire brigade to go and remove Asian Hornet Nests, on average, nearly three callouts a day, just in the one city. When there’s a serious car accident or a house fire, the emergency responders are busy removing hornet nests. This problem creates a huge drain on already stretched resources.
Beyond that, consider the greater ecosystem. Again, in northern Spain, there is evidence of the long term consequences of a change in the natural order. Residents have reported a noticeable decline in the number of butterflies and other flying insects. Regular visitors to those areas have told the locals how green the area is looking. This doesn’t sound so bad, but just green. Where there used to be an abundance of colour from various flowers and plants, now it’s green. (El Pais News)
Would a couple of nests here and there really have much of an impact?
If they establish themselves, we then face a much bigger problem. An annual life cycle will result in a batch of queens being produced in a nest. One nest alone can produce 300 queens. It’s likely a third will be killed off by the winter and a third will not survive due to genetic defects which leaves a hundred to go off to set up new colonies. A couple of quick sums on the calculator… Let’s say this year one nest goes undetected and is not destroyed. Next year, there are 100 new nests. In 2022, there are 10’000 nests. By 2025 the calculator on my phone says “1e10”. In just 5 years time, we’re into numbers a calculator needs mathematical shorthand to display. It’s quite probable that our ecosystem won’t support numbers that high, but that is inconsequential. By the time the Asian Hornet has maxed out its potential, the damage to the bee population, the rest of the pollinators, the ecosystem, the flora it supports and yes, our honey production will have been done.
None of our native insects have experienced this threat. They have no defence against it. They don’t know what to look out for or how to deal with it. In Asia, the native bees defend their colonies with something called “heat balling”. When an Asian Hornet comes to the nest, the bees will attack it. In a coordinated strike, bees from the colony will bundle on top and will effectively cook the Asian Hornet to death. They then drag the body away from the nest as it will release pheromones that will attract other Asian Hornets to that area. The bees have learned to take that body away and bury it. Thousands of years of adaptation have led the bees in Asia to be able to defend themselves against the threat from Asian Hornets. Our native bees and don’t have that experience.
How to identify an Asian Hornet
Asian Hornets are a little smaller than the European Hornet we are more familiar with although still larger than a wasp. There are a couple of features that are unique to Asian Hornets. Firstly, the yellow legs. From the knee joint down, the Asian Hornet’s legs are yellow. Our hornets legs are a black/reddish-brown from top to bottom. The body of our native hornet is mostly yellow. Its abdomen is a pale yellow colour with thin black lines. The Asian Hornet however has a black abdomen with fine yellow bands and a slightly thicker yellow-orange band near its base. The ones in the image below have been captured and marked with coloured dots for tracking in order to locate and destroy their nests.
To find out more about what is being done to defend the UK against the threat posed by the Asian Hornet, read our next post where we’ll talk in more detail with Mark White about his role, the organisations he works with and how they tackle the problem.
To report a suspected discovery of an Asian Hornet or a nest, you can contact your nearest Beekeepers Association, use the UK Centre of Ecology and Hydrology online reporting form, or download the Asian Hornet Watch App to your smartphone. All links are displayed at the bottom of this page. To report a sighting, it is preferable that you include a photo to help with identification. The Asian Hornet is pretty docile and is likely to attack. Do not however attempt to approach or disturb a nest.
British BeeKeepers Association
ASIAN HORNET WATCH APP
Online Recording Form for Asian Hornet Sightings