Main image Penelope Cruz, (c) Getty from here
On my recent trip to Brittany, I saw my first Asian Hornets (Vespa Velutina). They were queens trying to establish nests early in the season, and even though I’d only seen photographs before I instantly recognised the large dark insects, which dart about making a deep hum as they fly. I think I saw four or five of them over a couple of days and to be honest, I found them to be quite beautiful creatures, not at all scary. They do have a fearsome reputation, however, so I was keen to ask my commercial beekeeper host, Richard Noel, all about them. (He has made some great videos by the way – well worth checking out the cell builder one)
Richard is a beekeeper with a horticultural qualification who also works as a landscape gardener. As the number of bee colonies has grown the time available for gardening has shrunk, which is fine by him, and his passionate love of beekeeping borders on obsessional, which is a common trait I have found in all of my interviewees. He is not a specialist in Asian Hornets, but he was happy to share his thoughts and experiences with me about them, and I think that it is worth listening to a commercial beekeeper who has had to deal with them for the past four years.
I made a video of an Asian Hornet queen which will help anybody to recognise them (below).
Richard told me: “In 2016 we had a major problem. It was our first full year of them after they arrived the previous year, so that was the first full year of the queens making their nests after the previous year’s invasion. We had a lot of hornets about. We didn’t have losses, but at the end of that year, there was a lot of hornets bothering bees. We had to put screens up in front of hives, and we were really worried because it was all new to us.”
He explained that 60 communes in his area (a commune is an administrative area in France) got together to set something like 5,000 traps the following Spring, and they caught about 9,000 queens.
“Because of the trapping in the Spring, we then had no problem the following year. We all had traps in our apiaries, and this group trapping by the communes was so successful that there were hardly any nests about, and the few that were there were found and dealt with.”
“Trapping queens in the Spring is the number one easiest solution. There has been a lot of research done, and if you allow a nest of hornets to reach maturity, there are a lot of hornets the following year. They are not just taking bees; they take other insects too. One nest can take a tonne of insects out of the bio-system – one nest! So if you get rid of a nest by early trapping of the queen, even though you catch other things that aren’t Asian hornets, you save many more insects in the long run. People are complaining about our traps catching common hornets, and we know we do catch some, it’s not our target pest. We find that the Asian hornets start flying 3 – 4 weeks before the common hornet queens. We tend to get a much higher percentage of the founding queens in early March and April, whereas the common hornet is in April and May.”
I think of the Vespa Velutina as a little bit like a stereotypical Latina, and I say this in jest, and with love and respect for all things Latina. They have a dark beauty, and they can become supremely enraged when provoked. The common hornet is reasonably docile, and you really have to poke at their nest to get stung. Velutina is a whole different thing. They will go berserk if they feel that their nest is endangered.
As Richard says, “If you look at videos of pest controllers dealing with the nests it’s a full-on attack, it’s unbelievable, whereas with the common hornet they may not attack at all.”
“People say they are killer hornets. One person who gets stung by a hornet is unlikely to die, but a person who happens to be allergic to bees and hornets, getting stung multiple times – they are going to be in big trouble. They are more likely to kill somebody [than other insects] because they are more aggressive, not because their venom is any worse. If you are allergic and get multiple stings, you could die.”
“If you disturb an Asian hornets’ nest they will chase you, they’ll spit venom at you, and they’ll sting you.”
Richard told me that if beehives are being bothered by Asian hornets and the nest cannot be found, the locals will sometimes catch one by zapping it with one of those electric fly killing bats. Once it is stunned it can be picked up wearing leather gloves and a treatment containing a tiny amount of a carefully selected insecticide is painted on its back, and it is released. The hornet flies home, and the toxin spreads through the hive and kills it off.
Given that we have now had Asian hornets spotted in Tetbury in the UK, then Woolacombe and more recently in Lancashire, I wondered what Richard thought about Velutina’s arrival on our shores.
“Regarding my thoughts on the introduction of Asian hornets into the UK, I don’t think it will ever be a major problem. I don’t feel that geographically it’s far enough South to raise big nests. The UK is a quarter of the size of France and has less unpopulated areas. The problem is when you get one nest that does reach maturity, and it does release a lot of queens then, yes, a lot of queens will start the following year. But I think overall there will be so many people aware of this, that even if that does happen, they’ll do trapping the following Spring to catch the queens. The process the hornet has to go through to achieve another nest somewhere else is likely to be halted somewhere along the line more so in the UK than here. We don’t have the foot soldiers here. England has done a great job with the publicity, and they have been proactive in dealing with the nest they found in Tetbury. They have done a lot of talks on it, and they have been able to learn from others in Europe who have had the Asian hornet for a while.”
“There’s also the issue that these hornets are from a very narrow genetic line, and they haven’t come from Asia as several queens; it’s been one queen that founded a nest in the Gironde, and that’s where all the others have come from. The scientists say that they reckon the Hornets in Tetbury had the same genetics as our ones. I think that one thing that isn’t helping them in Europe is that very narrow genetic line.”
“It’s depressing seeing how many hives people are losing in Spain but up here we don’t tend to lose hives. We have issues with hornets taking bees from outside hives, but it’s far worse further South. I think it’s brilliant that in the UK they are proactive and going into it with their eyes open, and not panicking. I think there will be the odd nest, but I don’t think it will be a major problem because there are more foot soldiers and it will be well managed. I think there will be nests, and it will terrify some people, but after a while, they will think, ‘hang on a minute, we’ve had these for four years, and nothing major has happened.'”
There you have it; the perspective of somebody who lives over the Channel who has had Asian hornets for some time. We need to be vigilant, and when we spot one we need to notify the authorities – they have the expertise to deal with it. Having seen them up close I’m not as worried about Velutina as I was, but one hornet on a flower is a very different thing to a load of them near to their nest!