In September last year, staff at an apiary near Tetbury in Gloucestershire spotted something they had anticipated but hoped they’d never see – Asian hornets foraging for food. They alerted DEFRA, which set up a three-mile surveillance zone around the site, eventually locating and destroying the hornets’ nest. It was the first sign of a nationwide species invasion which authorities have been expecting for a long time, and which looks likely to escalate in the near future.
The Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) is native to large swathes of Southeast Asia, from India and China all the way down to Indonesia, and is believed to have first arrived in Europe in 2004 among a French shipment of Chinese pottery. Over the subsequent decade, hornets established colonies across much of Western Europe, from Portugal and Spain through to Belgium and Germany, and then, last summer, in the Channel Islands of Jersey and Alderney.
New research from the University of Warwick now predicts that, given a chance, there could potentially be hundreds of thousands of Asian hornet nests across the UK within the next two decades (although cold winters in the north will likely prevent them colonising the entire country). Although no more hazardous to human health than a bee, Asian hornets pose a major threat to European honey bees thanks to their habit of preying on these native pollinators (as well as, to a lesser extent, on bumble bees and hover flies).
Consequently, a government-led effort is now underway to raise awareness and encourage vigilance, particularly among bee keepers, to report future Asian hornet sightings and enable nest destructions to take place. Even so, the long-term prognosis is not positive. ‘Even if we have managed to successfully control this first invasion,’ comments Professor Matt Keeling, Director of the Zeeman Institute for Systems Biology & Infectious Disease Epidemiology Research (SBIDER) at the University of Warwick, ‘the presence of a growing population of these hornets in Northern Europe makes future invasions inevitable.’
This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.