What are Asian hornets? How to identify the bee-killer species

Asian hornets prey on honey bees (PA)
Asian hornets prey on honey bees (PA)

Asian hornets have overwintered in the UK for the first time this year just gone, DNA testing reveals. This means it’s ever more likely that Asian hornets will be here for good, after thriving in France in recent years.

Across the Channel, they caused concern because of the number of bees that were killed, as Asian hornets will dismember and feed on bees, sitting outside honeybee hives and preying on those coming and going.

While they had been sighted in the UK, the first nest was captured in Kent in March 2023. Now, testing from the government-backed National Bee Unit has shown that three queen hornets that were caught at Four Oaks in East Sussex are the offspring of a nest destroyed in nearby Rye in November 2023.

This tracked family tree of the hornets is evidence that they are overwintering and breeding in the UK.

This isn’t enough for them to be officially naturalised in the UK, which requires generations of a creature to be found, where only one has been found so far.

Asian hornets caused havoc in mainland Europe last year, and nests have so far been found in East Sussex, Kent, Devon and Dorset.

A report found that invasive species are a major threat to nature, food security and human health. They also contribute to 60% of global extinctions and costs are quadrupling every decade, reaching $423 billion (£336 billion) in 2019.

The solutions are said to be border and import controls. Though the Asian hornet poses no greater risk to human health than other wasps or hornets, the Department for the Environment said, it can cause damage to honey bee colonies and other insects.

Asian hornet sightings are dramatically on the rise, with half of all sightings in the past seven years occuring in 2023. Almost 35 per cent of the reported sightings in the UK occurred in August of last year alone.

Londoners are asked to become familiar with the damaging species so they can recognise it.

What are Asian hornets?

In 2004, a consignment of products imported from East Asia most likely contained Asian hornets, which were unintentionally delivered to France.

The species has rapidly expanded since it first arrived in France and is now spreading to nearby nations.

How are they a threat to bees in the UK?

The Asian hornet is a notable bee predator, which is cause for concern.

They have killed a significant amount of bees in France, including numerous species of solitary and colonial bees such as the well-known European honey bee. Since bees are a crucial part of healthy ecosystems, organisations dedicated to nature conservation, like the RSPB, are worried about how Asian hornets could affect bee populations.

As they’ve spread to nearby nations from France, the Asian hornets could also become a problem in the UK.

According to Defra, there have been a total of 45 confirmed sightings of Asian hornets since 2016, with 22 confirmed sightings in 2023 alone. This figure includes a total of 29 nests, all of which were destroyed.

How do they compare with European hornets?

Asian hornets are smaller than our native European hornets and also have yellow tips on their legs. In comparison to our local hornet, which is 30 mm to 35 mm in length, an Asian hornet is frequently 25 mm to 30 mm long (or roughly 1 inch).

Another key difference is that while European hornets may be active at night, Asian hornets never are.

How to report an Asian hornet sighting

People will be able to swiftly and easily record potential sightings of the invasive species and transmit images of suspect insects to specialists at the National Bee Unit by using the free Asian Hornet Watch app.

You may get the Asian Hornet Watch app from the Apple and Android app stores.