As if honeybees didn’t have enough to contend with already, being hit by the overuse of neonicotinoids and the invasive varroa mite, now they have a new threat. The UK has recorded for the first time that the deadly Asian hornet has arrived on its shores. This veracious predator has the unfortunate habit of snacking on honeybees, as well as other species, and can cause significant damage to hives.
“We have been anticipating the arrival of the Asian hornet for some years and have a well-established protocol in place to eradicate them and control any potential spread,” says Nicola Spence, from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. So far, two individual Asian hornets (Vespa velutina) have been discovered in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, sparking suspicions that there is a nest of the insects somewhere local.
Work to seek out and destroy any nests is already underway. This includes setting up a 5-kilometer (3-mile) surveillance zone around Tetbury, deploying infrared cameras to detect any nests, and setting traps to try and catch any of the insects. If any are found, nest disposal experts will be sent in with pesticides to kill them. The individuals already found will also be subjected to DNA testing to uncover their exact origin.
It has long been expected that the hornets, which it is important to note “pose no greater risk to human health than a bee,” would eventually turn up in the UK. They were first reported to have appeared in France in 2004, suspected to have been brought into the country in a shipment of pottery from China. Only this summer were they then spotted in the Channel Islands of Jersey and Alderney.
The Asian hornets' modus operandi is for a few of them to hang around a hive's entrance, catching and biting off the heads of all the bees in the colony until it is empty, before then raiding the hive for its honey and moving on. Beekeepers in the UK will now be alert and on the lookout for the insects, just another threat that they will have to contend with.
“Its arrival is of huge concern, our pollinators are currently in decline from pesticide use, loss of habitat and climatic change. This voracious predator now could push some species beyond the tipping point and into extinction,” says Matt Shardlow, the chief executive of Buglife. “It seems likely to have arrived as a stowaway, the same way they reached continental Europe.”
Hopefully, the hornets will be eradicated before they are able to take hold, though it is unlikely to be the last time the predators will grace the UK’s shores.