Dear Readers, it’s difficult to avoid the tales of Asian hornets that are filling our newspapers at the moment, and there is rather a lot of confusion around, so here I am to try to clear things up.
First up, what’s the story? Asian hornets originate in Asia, as the name suggests, where honeybees are also native (they aren’t native to the UK). The Asian hornet specialises in hunting and killing not only honeybees but also a variety of solitary bees and lesser-known colonial bees. In Asia, the honeybees are largely of the Eastern Honeybee species, and these have developed a variety of means of combating the Asian hornet, including entering and leaving the hive at high speed, clustering over a hornet so that it overheats and dies, or using a particular kind of ‘wing shimmering’ that confuses the bees. When the Asian hornets arrived in Europe, however, the honeybees (largely of the Western honeybee species) have no such defences, and so are uniquely vulnerable to predation, as are our many native bee species.
The Asian hornets arrived in France in 2004, probably after being accidentally transported with cargo. Europe has banned the import of soil in pot plants from the UK because it’s a way of transporting a variety of invasive species, including the Asian hornet, but we have not reciprocated. The insect could also be arriving under its own steam, or by hitching a ride on ferries etc. Climate change will also make the conditions in the UK more comfortable for the insect.
The first Asian hornet arrived in 2016, but this year has seen a large increase in the number of sightings. In 2021 and 2022 there were only two confirmed sightings, but this year there have been 22 sightings so far. Worse, these are not just individual insects, but nests, and there is a cluster in Kent, with four nests destroyed in the past week. There have also been confirmed sightings in Eastbourne, Weymouth and Southampton, plus a sighting in Thamesmead on 21st August where a nest was destroyed (altogether too close to home!). You can find the map of Asian hornet incursions here, and very interesting it is too. Both Matt Shardlow of Buglife and Dave Goulson, bee expert extraordinaire, think that there is a real danger of the insect becoming established in the UK. With all the other threats to our native bees (pesticides, habitat loss, climate change) they can really do without another one.
However! It is really, really important to know what an Asian hornet looks like and what to do if you see one. The last thing we need is for our native hornet, hornet mimic-hoverflies and other insects to be demonised and swatted in an Asian hornet panic. Our native hornets eat a whole variety of large insects, from beetles to wasps to flies, and so are an asset rather than something to dread.
Also please note that the Asian hornet that we have in the UK is not the Giant Asian hornet (the ‘Murder Hornet’ beloved of the press). That is a completely different species. The Asian hornet that we have in the UK is actually smaller than our native European hornet, and its sting is no worse than that of a native bee or wasp.
There is an excellent definitive ID sheet to download here
However, here are the key points: the photo below shows an Asian hornet. Note that the abdomen is largely black, except for the orange segment towards the base. The hornet also has yellow legs (hence an alternative name of ‘yellow-legged hornet’).The British Beekeepers Association sum ID up in three easy to remember steps:
- Is it mainly black?
- Does it have a wide orange stripe on the fourth segment of the abdomen?
- Do its legs look as if they’ve been dipped in yellow paint?
So, the Asian hornet is actually very different from our native hornet (Vespula crabro). In flight this creature sounds like a Vulcan bomber, but gives much more of an orangey-brown impression than the Asian hornet which looks distinctly black. When the insect has settled, the differences are very clear. Note that the insect is much more wasp-like, with a yellow striped abdomen and that it has brown legs.
Another confusion that could arise is with a magnificent insect called the Giant Wood Wasp. This completely inoffensive creature has an ovipositor at the back which is often mistaken for a sting. She is also unfortunate enough to have yellow legs, and the base of her abdomen is yellow. Fortunately this magnificent creature is largely confined to coniferous forests, so hopefully she won’t be too hounded.
And, incidentally, here is a creature that is often mistaken for a European hornet, but is actually a hoverfly, another visitor from overseas who is making itself at home in the UK now that it’s getting warmer, with no unfortunate consequences at all. The Hornet-Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) is a frequent flyer in my garden. What a magnificent insect it is! But a close look at those compound eyes will tell you that this is a fly, not a hornet.
So, finally, what to do if you think you’ve seen an Asian hornet? You can report it via the Asian Hornet app (available for iPhone or Android). You can report it online here. Or you can email at this address: email@example.com <firstname.lastname@example.org>
If possible include a photo of the insect (dead or alive), and the exact location where it was seen. A group of organisations plus the government are coordinating to detect nests and destroy them to prevent the Asian hornet from becoming established.
You’ll know that I am generally relaxed about non-native species (and I have many, many posts on ring-necked parakeets and grey squirrels to prove it). But the Asian hornet really does seem to be a danger to our native bee species and to honeybees, already challenged by everything from varroa mite to climate change. Let’s be vigilant, informed and sensible.