This weekend I went to the Cornwall Beekeepers Association (CBKA)’s AGM. There were some probing questions asked… but luckily there was also plentiful tea and cake to sweeten the proceedings. The CBKA’s setup is more fragmented than Ealing as it is split into seven local groups spread around the county. There is also a West Cornwall Beekeepers’ Association! It was hard deciding which to join since I live in central Cornwall, so for now I’ve joined both.
The speaker afterwards was Martyn Hocking from Woolacombe in north Devon. Poor Martin achieved fame amongst British beekeepers last year when he spotted a Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) in his apiary. An ex-teacher, he looked at ease stood on top of the village hall stage. He set the scene of last September 2017 for us… describing himself as an ordinary beekeeper with a long list of other hobbies (although he has two apiaries with 15-20 hives, more than the average British beekeeper).
A glowing teddy bear…
While in one of his apiaries, out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of an insect which he knew was different to anything he’d seen before, with an end which appeared glowing like a cigarette. It was velvety too (to him the hornets look like teddy bears you might want to give a cuddle – if they weren’t there to rip your bees’ heads off). A highly segmented body, long legs, wings longer than its body. He felt a sense of dread. At home his wife Sally laughed, ‘Don’t be so daft’ when he told her he thought he’d seen an Asian hornet.
An email to the National Bee Unit reporting the sighting was responded to with a request for a picture. Trying to get one cost him a week, as struggling with an iPhone 4 to photograph a fast moving insect is not easy. Knowing as he does now that the hornets are not overly aggressive away from their nests, he recommends catching them with a shrimp net then putting them in the freezer to get a sample for the NBU (the NBU has advice online on how to do this). Ultimately the NBU will want a sample specimen before putting nest eradication plans into action.
Asian hornet behaviour
Martyn now knows that Asian hornets don’t just like to ‘hawk’ in front of hives but will appear from the back, dive underneath and then grab bees at the front before flying away. They are not usually aggressive to humans unless within around 30 metres of their nest (at which point they can be very aggressive). Like Martyn, it is likely to be around September when you first see them, as this is when their need for protein sources like honey bees increases. They dismember bees because they want their thorax and flight muscles as protein for the nest. To satisfy their need for protein, fish fingers can be used as bait.
What should the National Bee Unit be doing?
Beekeepers are not currently part of the NBU’s eradication protocol, but Martyn argues that they should make use of us, as we are one of the few groups of people that pay attention to insects. We are the border guards between the Asian hornet becoming established here. He felt very much on his own after reporting the initial sighting, with the responsibility put on him to provide a photo, followed by feeling brushed aside once the NBU inspectors descended on Woolacombe.
However, beekeepers are also part of the problem. Look at these stats, which Martyn gave us:
- 2016 – 2700 Asian hornet reports logged with the Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS)
- 2017 – 4500 reports logged with the NNSS. Only two of these were genuine Asian hornet sightings, one Martyn’s and the other on a lorry in the other end of the country, in Glasgow.
The majority of these false reports are made by beekeepers. Coming from a Cornish family, Martyn was reminded of one of his mum’s old Cornish sayings – “Everyone knows what to do with a kicking horse when they haven’t got one”. It’s easy to criticise the NBU, but in many ways they are trying their best to raise awareness of the hornet, through giving out information sheets, doing talks, running Bee Health Days for beekeepers, maintaining the BeeBase website and now a new Asian Hornet Watch app.
Lessons from France
Brittany is similar in size to the South West peninsula. Last year, around 900 Asian hornet nests were destroyed there. This is the scale of the situation we could soon be facing. We’re currently in a phase of ‘Preventing establishment’. It is not clear yet how the NBU would deal with a containment phase. In a 2012 Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) assessment report by the government, establishment of the Asian hornet here and its subsequent spread across the country was estimated as ‘highly likely’.
Yet, Martyn argues, the language and tone of the NBU publicity material on Asian hornets is positive and relaxing, with the effect of calming beekeepers rather than stirring them to action. His overall message was – we should be worried! We should be using this time to prepare ourselves, putting together local Asian Hornet Action Teams of beekeepers to keep an eye out and support any members who have a potential sighting. Don’t think that because you are not by the coast you are safe. They could enter the country by truck, train or plane, not just by flying over the Channel.
- Asian hornet arrives in my apiary – article by Martyn Hocking, Journal of Devon Beekeepers’ Association, p.172-175
- Asian hornets arrive in the UK – are you prepared? – 60 minute YouTube video of Martyn doing a similar presentation to the one he gave us for the CBKA AGM
- Asian hornets hawking a beehive and catching a bee – short YouTube video from the Animal and Plant Health Agency
- Beebase Asian hornet information page – appearance, biology, how to report sightings
- Beebase Asian hornet photo gallery – worth printing out one of these photos and keeping it in your apiary