Killer Asian hornets have been found on a Channel island for the first time – raising fears the species could threaten the UK mainland.
The nest – containing 280 worker hornets – was found in brambles on a beach on Herm, prompting specialist exterminators from the specially formed Guernsey Asian Hornet Team to scramble to remove it.
Asian hornets reached Europe in 2004 and are now widespread in Spain and Portugal after apparently sneaking into France in 2004 in a shipment of pottery from China.
The pests have killed at least five people in France. They have been sighted regularly on the Channel Islands – although never before on Herm – and were first reported in the UK in 2016, where sightings have been rarer.
The nest was found in brambles on a beach on Herm, prompting specialist exterminators from the specially formed Guernsey Asian Hornet Team to scramble to remove it (pictured)
The nest contained around 280 worker hornets – and is pictured here after the insects were exterminated
Their venom is so powerful, it causes people to go into anaphylactic shock and they can die within minutes of being attacked unless they receive urgent medical treatment.
They are more dangerous than our native European hornet, which wildlife experts praise for being a gardener’s friend because they prey on pests.
Today the Asian Hornet Team said the ‘medium-sized’ nest was swiftly removed from brambles bushes near Belvoir beach.
The team had been called in after reports of Asian hornets – Latin name Vespa velutina – in a number of locations around the island.
Francis Russell, project coordinator for the Asian Hornet Strategy on Guernsey, said they were grateful to everyone who had contacted them with information.
‘Pinpointing a nest is always challenging but this one was found relatively quickly by tracking hornets returning from two different locations back to their single nest,’ he said.
‘It is a race against time to find and destroy nests before they have raised the next generation of queens, at which point risks this invasive species becoming established on our islands.
‘That’s a very unwelcome prospect that would devastate our native species and make the work of controlling them in future years much more difficult.’
Last month, a nest on Guernsey was found within a stone’s throw of houses.
The hornets had previously stuck to remote spots in the countryside to build their nests.
Horrified experts said the discovery of a large nest up a sweet chestnut tree a few yards from homes on Guernsey was a ‘worrying’ development.
The team had been called in after reports of Asian hornets – Latin name Vespa velutina – in a number of locations around the island. File photo
There have been other sightings since 2019 on the Channel Islands, but always in open countryside, far away from any towns or villages.
On Guernsey, volunteers have set hundreds of traps in gardens, hedges and fields to keep them at bay.
Alderney, Sark and Herm have similar programmes to try to stop the hornets from gaining a foothold – but now it failed on Herm.
People have been given a kit with full instructions on what to do if they catch an Asian hornet.
The discovery of the nest in the sweet chestnut tree near houses in St Sampsons, Guernsey, last month was the first to be found in a built-up area.
It was found with the help of people reporting sightings and tracking ‘worker’ hornets returning to the nest.
All residents within 100 metres of the nest were warned of the removal and were advised to keep their windows and doors closed, the island’s Asian Hornet Team said.
Speaking in September, Francis Russel sad: ‘It is extraordinary that such a large nest was eventually located off Sandy Lane, surrounded by houses, after we have spent a week searching the area.
‘It goes to show that these insects are quietly going about their business all summer long and hardly anyone would know about it.
‘The timing for finding and taking down these nests is really important as this is the time they start producing hundreds of new queens.
‘Now we will be focusing all our attention on the area around Le Petit Axce where we strongly suspect there is still a nest to find.’
Last year there was a respite from the Asian hornet threat thanks to lockdown.
But with travel opening up again this summer, and many families crossing the Channel into Europe for their holidays, the beasts are feared to have stowed away in luggage to reach Britain.
Teams from Devon’s bee-keeping associations are working hard to tell the public about the threat.
They are distributing posters to places like caravan parks, marinas and parish notice boards and asking people to check boats and vehicles on their return from the Continent.
A spokesman said: ‘Unsuspecting travellers could be bringing hidden Asian hornets into Britain in their vehicles and luggage, thus inadvertently releasing queen hornets that will hibernate and establish new nests here next spring.’
Hundreds of traps are being laid to nab the nest-making queens in the Channel Islands.
The hope is that by taking out the matriarchs, it will halt the yellow and black-striped terror’s invasion.
Mr Russell described Asian hornets as ‘voracious predators’.
But he added: ‘A single insect is a lot easier to deal with than a nest of ten or twelve thousand angry worker hornets, which could be 30ft up in a tree.’
Just one Asian hornet can wreak terrible damage – it can hunt down and eat fifty honey bees every day.
The matriarchs build large nests, which can house up to 5,000 hornets by August or September each year.
Mr Russell said ‘We have noticed that queen hornets have a habit of turning up in kitchens so it is important to not let these insects escape.
‘Most likely, it will be a harmless queen wasp, but it is always a possibility.
‘I would also ask people to check their outbuildings, sheds, verandas and porches to look for any of the early queen’s nests – pale brown and not much bigger than a golf ball.’
Their mere presence can deter terrified bees from flying out of their hives for honey-making, costing beekeepers a fortune.
They’re native to temperate and tropical Eastern Asia and have jaws strong enough to chew through protective clothing that beekeepers wear.
The National Bee Unit, which works for Defra, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has warned that apart from the threat to humans, they can destroy a hive of 30,000 honey bees within hours.
A spokesman said ‘If you suspect that you have found an Asian hornet, you can send a suspect sample to the NBU laboratory for examination.
‘Use a suitable sturdy container (cardboard rather than plastic) and provide as much detail as possible about the hornet and where you found it.’
But nature experts at Buglife begged people not to kill British hornets – which are a friend of gardeners and farmers because they eat harmful pests – in mistake for the Asian species.
‘Our native hornets are quite docile and if you leave them alone they are unlikely to sting. Their nests are to be avoided though,’ the spokesman said.
‘We are concerned that native hornets are being mistaken for Asian hornets, and being killed unnecessarily.
‘Our native hornets and other social wasps play an important part in maintaining a healthy countryside – they pollinate some plants, and they help to control crop pests, so they are really very useful creatures.
‘But we would encourage anyone who suspects they have found an Asian hornet to please report it to Defra.’
WHAT IS THE KILLER ASIAN HORNET INVASION?
Asian hornets were accidentally brought to France in 2004, probably in an imported shipment of goods.
Since then the dark brown and orange insects have spread rapidly through the country and started to invade neighbouring countries.
They have also become established in the Channel Islands and were first reported in the UK in 2016.
In 2016, an Asian hornet nest was discovered in Gloucestershire and destroyed.
The hornets, which grow up to two inches long (45mm) and have a three-inch wingspan (75mm), are an aggressive predator of honey bees and other pollinating insects.
The hornets prey on honeybees, hovering like attack helicopters outside their hives and grabbing them on the wing.
The bees are dismembered before being carried back to the hornets’ nest to be fed to larvae.
The charity Plantlife has warned that the hornet ‘poses a deadly threat to honeybees and other pollinators and any potential sightings should be immediately reported to the GB Non-native Species Secretariat.’
Queens build nests in April. They rapidly start laying eggs until the hive population reaches about 6,000 insects.
A report by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, estimates that the decline of bees worldwide poses a potentially major risk to world food supplies.
Britain’s bees are thought to have fallen by a third since 2007. The British Beekeepers’ Association warns the public not to disturb a hornets’ nest ‘under any circumstances’.