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Asian Hornets – Invasive Threat to Native British Bees
The native British honey bee is under threat as never before. Tragically, their numbers have been declining drastically since the 1950s and could now have dipped as low as 50,000 during the summer months.
If honey bees were to disappear completely it would be catastrophic because as well as producing delicious honey for us to eat, they play a major part in our eco-system by pollinating fruit, flowers and other crops.
As well as having to deal with pollution, habitat loss and climate change they have been hit with challenges such as colony collapse, infestation of Varroa mites and beekeepers have had to deal with their hives producing honey crops from fields of rapeseed oil flowers, which does not produce tasty, flavoursome honey.
But lurking on the horizon is a new threat; a foreign invader that can destroy a whole hive of honey bees in a few short hours. For the Asian hornet has reached France and established colonies there and scientists believe it could make its way to British shores in the next few months.
These Asian hornets (Vespa velutina nigrithorax) are slightly smaller than native British hornets and the queens can grow to be around 3cms long.
They have a long sting and their bodies can either be black or dark brown and are characterised by a narrow band of yellow colouring.
To date there have been no verified sightings of the Asian hornet in the UK, but they could make their way over the Channel in food shipments or they could even possibly fly over.
These Asian hornets arrived in the South of France in 2005 from their native China in a shipment of pottery.
They escaped from the confinement of their long journey and spread rapidly across Europe. They have made it to Spain, Portugal and Belgium and experts think the next countries they will invade are Italy and Britain.
But why are scientists so worried about this potential invasive species and the impact they could have on our native honey bee population?
The Asian hornet is a very aggressive predator with a large appetite for honey bees. If a swarm of Asian hornets find a bee hive they will hang around the entrance, hoping to pick off individual bees returning from foraging.
They attack the returning bee, forcing them onto the ground. They then paralyse their victim, strip off their wings and carry them back to their own colony as food for their larvae. When they feel they have destroyed enough of the hive’s defenders, and it is estimated they can kill around fifty bees in just one hour, they will invade the hive and kill all the young.
The whole hive can be destroyed in just a few hours and then they move on to the next one and then the next one.
As the Asian hornet is an invasive species, they have no natural predators in the UK and none of our 25 native bee species have any defences against their deadly incursions. The aggressive nature of these hornets also poses a threat to humans, as they will attack in numbers and repeatedly sting someone who they deem a threat.
There have already been fatalities in France, where sadly six people have died from going into anaphylactic shock after having been stung.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) urge anyone who thinks they may have sighted an Asian hornet to report it, preferably with an accompanying photo for positive identification.
The places to look for an Asian hornet’s nest are high above the ground in trees, buildings or cliffs. However, DEFRA do not advise trying to deal with the invader, as disturbing a hornet’s nest could be extremely dangerous and they need to be destroyed by expert exterminators.
The expected arrival of these invasive insects is worrying enough but they do have an even larger cousin, which is a lot more aggressive and voracious.
Luckily for us the Giant Asian hornet (vespa mandarinia) still seems to be keeping to its native Asia, although there have been a few unconfirmed sightings in the United States. These flying insects are truly the giants of the hornet world.
They can grow as large as 2 ½ inches long and have a wingspan of 3 inches. Their native habitat is the mountainous parts of China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka and worryingly attacks on humans have increased in recent years.
Again, scientists believe this might be due to climate change or it could simply be due to rising human population levels moving more people into their habitat.
In the summer of 2013 the Chinese province of Shaanxi was plagued by swarms of the huge Giant Asian hornets. It was reported in the local press that at least 28 people had died after being attacked and repeatedly stung and a further 419 were injured.
What shocked people the most was the sheer aggression of the attacks, with some of the poor victims being stung up to 200 times.
The stings are also reported to be very, very painful as the venom has an enzyme in it which can dissolve human skin and tissue. A Japanese entomologist who was unlucky enough to be stung said it felt like a hot nail was being driven into his leg.
The Giant Asian hornet is a very fast traveller as it can fly around 25 miles an hour, which would allow it to cover as much as 60 miles in just one day.
This poses huge concerns if this destructive invader is really present in the US, because they have the potential to create colonies and spread very quickly. Again, there are no natural predators of the Giant Asian hornet in the Americas, who could stem the spreading tide.
However, by now you may be asking how the Native Asian bees have survived without being wiped out by this rapacious predator?
In Japan, bees have developed a sophisticated strategy for protecting themselves and their hives. If they spot a marauding hornet in their territory, they will engulf the invader while at the same time raising their body temperatures. This overheats the hornet, basically ‘cooking’ it to death with the heat generated from their bodies.
Another predator of the Asian giant hornet is humans. They are deep fried and eaten in Japan where they are considered a great delicacy.
While we may wrinkle our noses in distaste, deep-fried hornets are said to be delicious and are a very good source of protein. What might seem even stranger to us is that the Japanese also utilise a secretion of the hornet’s larvae in health drinks.
They think that ingesting this secretion is what gives the adult hornets their remarkable powers of endurance and strength, so they have produced a product called ‘hornet’s juice’ made from a synthetic version of the larvae’s secretion.
It is mainly used by athletes and some Japanese marathon runners swear that drinking it seriously improves their race times and stamina levels.
Sadly, little can probably be done to prevent the Asian hornet reaching Britain and setting up colonies. All we can do is remain vigilant and report any sightings to the appropriate authorities.
British honey bees need all the help they can get to rebuild their numbers and start thriving again and do not need a new, aggressive predator in their midst. Invasive species are always a difficult thing to deal with as all living things should be valued and treated as humanely as possible.
But the truth is they often devastate native eco-systems and can cost the economy billions of pounds. Maybe we need to emulate the Japanese and develop a taste for deep-fried hornets, which would help protect the honey bees and nourish ourselves. Anyone for a glass of ‘hornet’s juice’?
Update June 2014:-
The government are so concerned at the impact Asian hornets could have on British bees and the eco-system they are bringing in new species control orders which can authorise the destruction of any animals, plants or pests that pose a danger to native habitats, human health or national security.
Wikipedia Asian Giant Hornet - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_giant_hornet
Daily Mail - Killer Hornet - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1266226/The-killer-Asian-hornet-threatens-native-honeybees.html
Beekeepers Association - Asian Hornet - http://www.bbka.org.uk/help/asian_hornet
Natural History Museum - Invasion of Asian Hornet - http://www.bbka.org.uk/help/asian_hornet
NNSS Species Alert - http://www.nonnativespecies.org/alerts/index.cfm?id=4
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