Asian Hornets in England

Huge Asian hornets nearly wipe out beekeeper’s business after tearing through hives in England

The giant insects that can devour more than 60 bees a day, have killed thousands of bees at Peter Down’s apiary in Kent


Chantal Weller

Alan Smith

Huge Asian hornets have nearly wiped out a beekeeper’s business after tearing through his hives.

The giant insects that can devour more than 60 bees a day, have killed thousands of bees at Peter Down’s apiary in Kent. Out of 20 hives, only four or five remain and those bees are so stressed that they cannot produce any honey.

It comes as 42 nests have been found in the UK – almost all in Kent – this season, dwarfing figures for previous years. Peter is calling on the government to do more to tackle the outbreak, which experts warn could ultimately threaten the nation’s food supply.

The 40-year-old, from New Romney, said he has watched in horror as his bees are “depleting” before his eyes – leaving him unable to sell any honey. He said: “We were pushing more than 20 hives coming into the season, but have lost between 14 and 16. I feel like I’ve lost everything.

“I have noticed a lot more hawking, hovering at the entrance to hives, happening and the Asian hornets are now picking on one of my stronger hives, so that may deplete in the next few days.”

Peter and his fellow beekeeper at the site, Simon Spratley, have set up traps at the apiary and along the cliff top. Last Wednesday, six yellow-legged Asian hornets were caught across three traps.

But Peter says there should not have been any, as the National Bee Unit (NBU) had destroyed three nests just days earlier. He said: “We should not be seeing any signs of Asian hornets five days later. We clearly have Asian hornets and have seen a few mating flights.

“On an average trap, we had been finding 12 to 14 hornets, which is high numbers given we check them every 24 to 48 hours.” Peter usually makes up to 600 jars of honey by this time of year but the invasion has killed off production.

He added: “Our bees are so stressed that they are not producing the honey they need to. They are also not producing the stores they need to survive the winter let alone give us any to sell.” Ten people in Jersey have needed urgent medical treatment this summer after being stung by Asian hornets.

Peter carries an Epipen because he can have a bad allergic reaction to wasp stings. But the father-of-five loves beekeeping because it helps him “massively” with his mental health – making the attacks by the hornets even more upsetting. He continued: “To have 20-odd hives go down to what I have now, and physically watching Asian hornets coming in and hawking my bees, is not what I want to see.”

Peter is one of many beekeepers who are members of Asian Hornet Action Teams (AHATs). He is urging the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and NBU to work together more with AHATs to target hornet nests quicker.

He said: “I think they still do not want to admit that we have an invasion of them. Last year we had two nests destroyed. This year we have 42 and counting across 36 locations. Our numbers are showing we are getting a massive influx.”

The Asian hornet, which is about twice the size of a wasp and can eat more than 60 bees in a day, is distinguished by its yellow legs.

Originating from China, in the last few years the insects have spread across Continental Europe and are now a resident pest in France, Spain, Belgium, and Jersey, where hundreds of nests have created a huge problem. Five people in France have died after being stung.

In Kent the hornets are most predominant in coastal areas, including Whitstable but they have also been confirmed inland at Canterbury, Ashford and Maidstone and even as far as Tunbridge Wells and Rochester.

Ecologist Roger Simpson said: “They are a predator on all pollinators. So this isn’t simply a niche problem for bee-keepers. Yes Asian hornets predate on honey bees, but they predate on all our native pollinators, so unchecked they will threaten our food supply and lead to food shortages and increased prices.

“This is the season when the nest will be throwing out virgin queens, who after they have mated will hibernate over winter and then set up new nests next spring. So the problem is the hornet population could take off exponentially. That is why it is really important to identify the hornet nests now.” Mr Simpson warned: “If we don’t get a handle on this problem, there will be significant impact on both ecology and food in the UK.”

A spokesperson for the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) said: “The sharp increase in Asian/yellow-legged hornets in England is a serious concern. The national contingency plan is currently one of eradication. The BBKA has established a national network of Asian Hornet Teams to help identify and raise awareness amongst the public of this invasive species, set monitoring stations and assist the NBU on request.”

An Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA) spokesperson from Defra added: “We are committed to working closely with stakeholders who have been extremely helpful in increasing vigilance and awareness of Asian hornets.

“Due to several issues including health and safety, we are unable to bring volunteers into the official response and under our supervision. However, we will continue to work with them in triaging unconfirmed sightings and conducting follow-up checks once official activity is completed, which is a vital part of our efforts to eradicate Asian hornets.”

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