Asian hornet on the way to prey on honeybees

Invasion of predators across Channel threatens massacre of bee colonies


If you are nervous around stinging insects, you might think that bees are bad, wasps are worse, and hornets are positively horrible. Well, you ain't seen nothing yet.

A new hornet may be on the way to Britain which puts our native breed to shame in terms of aggression, especially towards honeybees – which it massacres. The Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, is strongly established in France, where it is thought to have arrived from the Far East in a consignment of Chinese plant pots in late 2004, and beekeepers and entomologists are concerned that it may now spread across the Channel, especially as climate change brings warmer summers.

Although Britain's native hornet, Vespa crabro, occasionally takes bees, its threat to them is as nothing compared to that from its eastern relative.

Groups from five to 50 Asian hornets hover in front of a beehive, picking off single honeybees, decapitating them and stripping off their wings and legs before making off with the "meat ball" to their nest to feed their young.

As the attacks continue, the honeybee colony stops flying and has to consume its own stores, a development which eventually weakens it to such a point that a hornet invasion force can enter the hive and pillage it completely. Whole hives can be destroyed in this way relatively rapidly.

In Asia, honeybees have evolved a defence: they form a ball of workers around the intruders, engulfing the hornets and killing them en masse by "asphyxia-balling" – in effect, by heatstroke. This behaviour has also developed among honeybees in Cyprus towards the Oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis), which in Greece and Italy has long posed threats to honeybees.

In France, however, the bees have not yet had time to evolve effective defences against their new predators, merely attempting in vain to sting them to death, and honeybee losses are mounting as the invading insects spread. From one nest discovered in 2004 in Aquitaine, in France's south-west, there were 2,000 in the Bordeaux area by 2007, and some apiaries around Bordeaux were by then suffering up to 70 per cent colony losses. Now the insects are believed to have spread much further north and may even have reached the Channel coast.

Last summer there was concern in France that the public might be at risk from Asian hornets, with several attacks on people reported from the départment of Lot-et-Garonne, where in August hundreds of the insects attacked a mother on a stroll with her five-month-old baby before turning on a neighbour who ran over to help. They then pursued two passers-by and two Dutch tourists on bikes who were treated in hospital for multiple stings. The incidents caused local councils to issue alerts, warning people with bee allergies to be "extremely cautious" and urging people never to attempt to destroy an Asian hornet nest themselves but to call on specialists.

Now British experts fear the insects could arrive in Britain either by crossing the Channel – as other continental insect species have done in recent years – or by being accidentally imported. "People are on the lookout for it, most definitely," said Tim Lovett, of the British Beekeepers' Association. "It is an unpleasant little critter."

A UK-based honeybee health company, Vita (Europe) Ltd, plans to have a hornet trap ready by the end of this season. "As yet there seems no way of controlling the spread of the Asian hornet, despite the best efforts of firefighters who are the only ones equipped to destroy their nests, which are usually high in tree tops," said Vita's Dr Max Watkins. "We cannot tell if or when the hornet might reach Britain, but since it is already near St Malo in northern France and since it seems to survive well in these climates, its arrival in the next few seasons looks likely. We expect to have a trap patented and in production by the end of this season."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas