Asian hornet alert and a call for help

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Asian hornet alert and a call for help

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In response to the news of the arrival of the Asian Hornet, my colleague Paul Walton, who leads our work on invasive non-native species, offers this reaction.

Surely the social insects – bees, ants, wasps and termites – are among the most astounding of all species. In these animals we have socially cooperative rearing of young, the ordered division of labour within a colony, and reproduction restricted to a small number of queens and reproductive males, with the majority of individuals living and working alongside their sisters purely in the interests of the colony collective. It almost defies belief.


Image courtesy of Jean Haxaire

Not only this, but these insects are of critical ecological importance as pollinators, soil engineers and as food for other animals. And beyond that, the economic significance of crop pollination services by bees alone stands at more than £200 million per year in the UK[1]. Little wonder that, for many, these insects have come to embody and symbolise our affection and concern for our natural environment.

The human impact on the natural world is profound and, often, bewildering. Consensus has emerged, however, around the recognition of five key basic drivers: pollution; climate change; habitat degradation; overexploitation; and the impact of invasive non-native species.

The last of these is perhaps the most difficult to grasp. Is adding new species to the environment really such an issue? The answer is perhaps not in every single instance but, collectively, most emphatically yes. Natural barriers to species dispersal – oceans, currents, deserts, mountains etc. – exist across the world and force species, habitats and ecosystems to develop differently in different regions. We end up with antelope as plains grazers in Africa, and kangaroos as plains grazers in Australia - and this effect plays out across the living world. A high proportion of living diversity, our shared natural inheritance, is generated and maintained by this simple effect. However, human beings are now moving species across these barriers, either deliberately via trade and transport, or accidentally as hitchhikers or stowaways. The loss of species and disruption of habitats on a massive scale is the result.

Research suggests that, sometime around 2004, containers of pottery from China arrived at the port of Bordeaux. Hidden in the shipment were queen Asian hornets, native of South Asia. The insects escaped into the wild and started to reproduce. In just 5 years there were several thousand nests in the Bordeaux area, the species had established in northern Spain by 2010, and by the end of 2015 Asian hornets were reported over most of France.

Now, the species has arrived in the UK, with workers spotted in Gloucestershire for the first time this September. A nest has not been found yet, but intensive efforts are underway to locate it.

Is this an issue? Based on assessments so far, and evidence from France, it’s certainly likely to be an important one. Asian hornets feed, quite naturally, on other insects. This includes honey bees, so critically important as pollinators and, more significantly from a conservation standpoint, native species such as bumblebees. The introduction of new predators can have major impacts on native wildlife. We do not know for sure what these might be in reality, but the potential for major ecological, not to mention socio-economic impacts is real.

There is hope, however. Working under the GB Non-native Species Strategy, officials are working to find and eradicate the hornets before they can spread. If the nests can be detected at the early stages of invasion, there is a real chance that we can prevent the establishment of Asian hornets in the UK – and thus defend wildlife.

A key element of that task will be maximum vigilance from everyone who spends time out of doors. The more eyes we have looking out for Asian hornets, and reporting any potential sightings to the GB Non-native Species Secretariat, the higher our chances of success in containing the spread. The Secretariat is calling for people to report potential sightings and, in particular, to send in photographs of any suspected Asian hornets that are seen.

Suspected sightings can be reported by email to:

alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk

or through the online reporting form

  http://www.brc.ac.uk/risc/alert.php?species=asian_hornet

Officials are also developing an Asian Hornet app for recording which will be available on the App Store shortly.

Links to ID sheets and posters are here: 

https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/downloadDocument.cfm?id=646

https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/downloadDocument.cfm?id=872

Three crucial considerations before we all proceed with our eyes open for this new arrival.

First, make sure to check the identification information before sending in a report.  Asian hornets are actually somewhat smaller than the native European hornet and can be distinguished by their yellow ‘feet’, orange ‘face’ and dark thorax and abdomen.  They can be confused with native hornets, hoverflies and wood wasps. 

Secondly, remember that this is absolutely not a call to despise or destroy all wasps and hornets. Any suspected Asian hornets should be reported, not tackled, and any native species should be left in peace. Though these native insects might irritate us sometimes, and occasionally sting, they play important roles in our ecosystems and are valuable wildlife species in their own right. 

Thirdly, we should all remember that it is not the Asian hornets’ fault that they are here and may cause damage. These insects are simply doing what comes naturally. This is an entirely human-generated problem, and it is up to us to fix it if we can.

In the end, the crucial lesson is that we must all be much smarter about how we move animals and plants around the world. If we are not, problems like the Asian hornet can only get worse in the future. For now, though, we all have a chance to play a part in stopping the spread of one problem species in our country, protecting the amazing diversity of wildlife around us. Thanks for your help.


[1] http://www.bbka.org.uk/kids/importance_of_bees

Comments
  • I really hope that you get to grips to this invasion in the UK before it's too late. We've lived in France for many years & too little too late is the lesson from here. The nests are easy to spot in Winter but it's too late then. Honey traps can be designed to trap only Asian hornets & not European, which can be placed in the Spring to catch the queens. Destroying nests in high trees is very difficult but now there are a lot more ways of doing it, such as using drones loaded with remote controlled insecticide. Unfortunately in France the cost of destroying the nests was either borne by the landowner or local authority so few nests were destroyed!

    Good Luck!