A bit of a hornet’s nest

Image above: (L) Asian Hornet, clearly showing the dark thorax and abdomen and the yellow tips to the legs; photograph Haim Charbit; (R) photograph by Fablegros; both from Pixabay

Guest blog by Joanne Gilbert

Our main aim as WildChiswick is to help local wildlife thrive and survive.  Sometimes to do this, you need to consider the damage that can be done to our native flora and fauna by invasive species. Earlier this week I had a chat with Mark Pritchard who is an avid nature lover and beekeeper. Mark is very concerned about the rapid growth of Asian Hornet nests across the Southeast of England and is keen to make the public aware of their arrival, and ways in which they can report sightings.

It is believed the first Asian hornet arrived in France in 2004, most likely in a consignment of pottery from China. The species has since spread to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Holland arriving in the UK in 2016. It is assumed the insects arrived on UK shores through a consignment of goods such as soil associated with imported plants, cut flowers and garden furnishings. Although the possibility of the hornet being able to fly across the Channel has not been ruled out.

Image above: Asian Hornet nest; photograph Claude Alleva – Pixabay

Why should we care about a new species on our shores?

The Asian Hornet is a ferocious eater with a particular taste for the honeybee as well as our native solitary and bumble bees. One nest can collect 11kg of insects in a year – the same weight as my cocker spaniel!

The Queen can emerge from hibernation as early as February if temperatures reach 13 degrees Centigrade for 3 days on the trot. At this stage she is feeding off nectar to gain energy. She will begin to build her nest and lay her eggs. The worker bees she produces are infertile and will spend their time finding food for the queen and her brood. This is when they will be looking for protein and the honeybee is their key resource. August through to November is their most active period.

They will fly around hives “hawking” for bees which they capture, slice up and take the thorax back to their nest for consumption. They tend to attack more than one hive at a time. Not only does the killing of the bees destroy the nest but the stress placed on the hive and the energy used to protect the inhabitants, often sees a hive collapsing as they no longer go out to forage.

Portugal reported a 35% decrease in their honey production in November 2023. Local conservation groups such as Buglife see the Asian Hornet as a real threat to our native insects and biodiversity due to its ferocious appetite.

Over 45 sighting have been made of Asian Hornet nests in the Southeast since 2016, mostly in Kent. However, August last year saw the first sighting and nest destruction in Thamesmead, London.

Image above: European Hornet, showing brown/orange body with brown legs. More yellow on abdomen than the Asian species. Photograph Ralphs_Fotos – Pixabay

Do not confuse with native species

We do have a native hornet – the European Hornet is a docile insect and goes about its business without upsetting the eco-system or bee hives. It does eat other insects but by and large is a friend to farmers and gardeners alike. We also have the median wasp, hornet mimic hoverfly and the woodwasp who are similar in appearance.

This is one reason Mark does not want anyone to kill the suspected Asian Hornet, just in case it is in fact, a native species. It will be his job to confirm identification. There is also a chance that if the identification is correct, the Hornet can lead experts to the nest and it can be destroyed.

How to identify

The Asian Hornet is smaller than the European Hornet.  It has an almost entirely dark body with the 4th segment on its body being yellow/orange in colour. Our native European Hornet has more of an orange/brown body colour.  The Asian hornet also has yellow tips to its legs, whereas the native hornet has dark legs.

What if we see one?

Mark now has an AH verification with the BBKA – (British Bee Keeping Association) enabling him to go out and confirm any sightings of an Asian Hornet in the local area. I asked him what a person should do if they think they have spotted a single hornet or a nest. The first thing he said was not to try and kill it and certainly do not attempt to remove the nest.

Although reasonably docile, they will protect their nest and with a 6mm sting in the tail, I would certainly not approach! Mark says the thing to do is take a photo if you can. Don’t worry if you miss it first time around as it will probably make another appearance. Then report the sighting via either of the following:

Download Asian Hornet Watch app for android and Iphone Online at: nonnativespecies.org/asianhornet

Email:  alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk

To contact Mark directly for a sighting verification tel:  07813 520678.

How to protect your hives

Beekeepers are now looking for ways to protect their hives. Some methods are quite expensive whilst others reasonably simple. I have read that the simplest commercial trap is the Veto Pharma trap sold by Thornes; a cheaper version is a DIY bottle trap. The best commercial attractant seems to be Trappit; the simplest DIY version is blackberry jam, sugar, water, and a splash of beer. Spray some attractant around the entrance to increase the scent profile and make your trap more interesting.

If you do set up a trap for your hives it is VERY important you protect from bycatch of other species. You can enable bycatch to escape by making holes in your traps: 7mm holes will keep queens in. In the summer, when workers are the target, the bycatch escape holes need to be 5.5mm.

Jo Gilbert, Founder WildChiswick


Further information on how to identify can be found at:  nonnativespecies.org

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