Asian hornets, which are about to invade Britain after spreading all over France and neighbouring countries, may destroy the British honeybee population, entomologists warn. Each Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) can devour up to fifty honeybees per day. Bees are not only important because of honey, they pollinate much of our crops. A severe decline in their population could undermine a country’s food security.
The Asian hornets arrived in France in 2004 hidden in a shipment of pottery from China. Since then, they have spread into Belgium and all the way down to southern Portugal.
European and British beekeepers are extremely concerned about the fate of bees across the continent, which have already experienced a considerable population decline.
The Asian Hornet will charge in a group as soon as it feels its nest is threatened. While not life-threatening for humans, its sting is more serious than that of a bee. (Image: Wikipedia)
The Asian hornet, also known as the Asian predatory wasp or Yellow-legged hornet, is smaller than its cousin, the European hornet (Vespa crabro), but don’t let that fool you – the small insect is significantly more aggressive and destructive.
According to entomologists (scientists who study insects), it is not a question of ‘if’ they will get to the UK but ‘when’. When it does, it will rapidly spread across the country and will be virtually impossible to eradicate.
EU legislation tough but not enough
Although the European Union has introduced very tough controls which came into force in January this year, the scale of the problem so huge that it is unlikely to stop the spread.
This week is National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISAW). NISAW aims to raise awareness and identify solutions to invasive species at local, regional, national and international scales.
The Wildlife and Countryside Link says that invasive non-native species (INNS) cost a fortune to control – more than £1.7 billion each year just in the UK.
So far, there have been no sightings of Asian Hornets in the United Kingdom. Experts say it is just a question of time before they get into the country. While its most likely route will be hidden in imported goods, experts have not ruled out the possibility that it could fly across the Channel. (Image: Wikipedia)
There are approximately two thousand non-native species today in the UK, of which over three hundred are invasive – this number has been increasing each year and is likely to continue doing so.
Bird extinctions linked to invasive species
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, INNS have caused many bird extinctions. Experts say that globally around half of all bird extinctions since the year 15000 have been due to INNS.
Regarding the imminent Asian hornet invasion of the UK, Camilla Keane, Head of the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Invasives group, said:
“Like all invasive non-native species, once established the Asian hornet would be incredibly difficult and hugely costly to tackle.”
“While we recognise the UK Government played an important role in developing the EU Invasive Alien Species Regulation as well as the list of 37 species of EU concern, during Invasive Species Week, we are calling on the Government in England to work with devolved administrations to develop a list of invasive alien species of UK-wide concern as set out in the EU IAS Regulation.”
“This would support collaborative working across the EU and help prevent species like the Asian hornet reaching our shores.”
The Asian hornet is smaller than our native European hornet. A key feature is the almost entirely dark abdomen, except for the 4th segment which is yellow. The tips of its legs are yellow, while our native hornet has dark tips. Its thorax is entirely brown or black, while that of the European hornet is more orange. (Image: GB Non-Native Species Secretariat – PDF download)
Asian hornet eats honeybees
Since the beginning of this century, the European honeybee population has plummeted. The arrival of the Asian hornet is like another nail in their coffin, many beekeepers fear.
Asian hornets devour several species of pollinators, including honeybees, in huge quantities.
According to the British Beekeepers Association:
“As a highly effective predator of insects, including honey bees and other beneficial species, it [Asian hornet] can cause significant losses to bee colonies, other native species and potentially ecosystems.”
From just one nest in a pottery shipment to France from China twelve years ago, the Asian hornet has thrived in Europe, spreading to Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
An Asian hornet eating a honeybee. One insect can eat up to 50 honeybees each day. (Image: flickr.com)
Although it is not yet present in Britain, it is likely to arrive soon, and will probably be first sighted in the southern parts of England.
Experts believe it will come into the country hidden is a shipment of goods, such as soil with imported pot plants, fruit, timber, or cut flowers.
Asian hornet not life-threatening for humans
The threat of invasion comes from the Asian hornet, and not the Giant Asian hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which has a sting that has been fatal for humans.
While not a killer as far as humans are concerned, it not only eats honeybees and other pollinators, but can also decimate populations.
If you see one you should contact the UK Biological Records Centre immediately. If you can, take a picture of it.
Ms. Keane said:
“Sadly many other invasive species already wreak havoc in our countryside, and new invasive non-native species are arriving each year, so the issue is not going away. However, there is a lot people can do to help combat the problem.”
“From not growing particular plants in your garden, composting garden waste wisely, to cleaning down your equipment after fishing or boating. There are a number of small steps like this that can dramatically reduce the spread of INNS.”
There will be a series of workshops and events across the UK this week. As well as looking for ways nations can collaborate to combat the spread of INNS, there will be a major drive to halt the spread of aquatic INNS in our streams, canals, rivers and lakes.
If you regularly use waterways, you should thoroughly clean your equipment. By doing so, you would be helping prevent the spread of several invasive species.
What’s the difference between a hornet and a wasp?
The information below comes from South Ribble Borough Council.
– Hornets: have some fur but much less than bees. They are yellow and chestnut brown. Hornets never swarm and only sting when provoked. If their nest is threatened they can attack in groups. Than can bite and sting at the same time. They eat mainly insects, including honeybees, as well as flowers and fruit.
Wasps: have no (or very little) hair. They are black and bright yellow. Wasps have an aggressive nature, but do not swarm. They sting readily and repeatedly. They eat food waste, insects and sugary drinks.
Bees: are very furry and have a gentle nature. Honeybees are black or brown with amber intermixed. Bees only sting once, after which they die. They eat nectar from flowers.
Video – Asian Hornet threatening European Honeybee population
Technical Director of Vita (Europe) Ltd, Dr. Max Watkins talks about the spread of Asian hornets and how European honeybees are under threat.