Asian hornet

Help tackle the invasive Asian hornet before our bees are lost

Work is underway to tackle a growing threat to the humble bee – the invasive Asian hornet which can decimate the native population of honeybees and bumblebees.

Shooters to the rescue

Unsurprisingly, people who shoot are very well placed to spot the signs of the invasive Asian hornet’s further invasion. Spring is the time of year we are out undertaking vital conservation work in the countryside. The game shooting seasons may have finished but work is ongoing to improve the quality of wildlife habitat and manage problem species which damage crops and woodlands.

Asian hornet attacking bees

The danger of invasive species

We all know how important our pollinators are – without them our chances of survival would be very slim. And while all animals, big or small, have their place in ensuring our ecosystems run smoothly and without hitches, problems arise when a stranger arrives unannounced and unwelcome…

We have all heard of the damage muntjac deer or grey squirrels cause to the British countryside and its wildlife. However, the invader we want to highlight now is a lot harder to spot and potentially much more dangerous…

A bit about the Asian hornet

The invasive (yellow-legged) Asian hornet (Vespa velutina nigrithorax) quickly spread all over central, western, and southern Europe after hitching a ride on some pottery shipment from China to France in 2004, becoming well-established in the region by 2022. Consequently, the Europe-born individuals made their way over the Channel, with the first sighting in the UK sometime in 2016. Since then, there have been a total of 102 sightings, which includes 85 nests destroyed. There appears to have been a boom in Asian hornet numbers in 2023, with a record number of 78 sightings, including more than 60 nests destroyed.   

Asian hornet abdomen

Not all yellow and black is bad

But don’t get too excited and eager to kill every striped insect you see. We have our native European hornets (Vespa crabro), and a few other lookalikes like the giant horntail (Urocerus gigas) commonly called a woodwasp. These guys are not a threat to UK pollinators.  

Regarding both species of hornets, be careful as their stings are very potent and can cause severe allergic reaction. And even though the European hornets are not protected in the UK, they are becoming critically endangered. So, unless found nesting in a place which poses danger to humans, please leave the European hornets be.

Common wasp
Common wasp, also known as the yellowjacket (Vespula vulgaris)
Giant horntail, or the giant woodwasp (Urocerus gigas)

Identifying the invasive Asian hornet

So, how can you tell the two apart? It’s not as difficult as you may think – but does require a good eye and attention to detail. European hornets are usually larger, mainly brownish, with clearly visible yellow stripes on the abdomen. They pretty much look like wasps on steroids.

Now, their Asian counterparts look far more sinister, just like their intent. Overall black, with bright-yellow legs and just a single yellow segment on the abdomen, they are slightly smaller than the European hornet, but so much more dangerous. Unlike native hornets, these primarily hunt honeybees.

They pose a huge danger to our native western honeybees, as they have not evolved any defensive behaviours against this enemy. They easily fall victim to the ruthless Asian predators, often becoming so scared that they refuse to leave the beehives and, with the queen stopping laying eggs, the whole colony inevitably collapses.

European hornet
European hornet (Vespa crabro)
Asian hornet
Asian hornet (Vespa velutina nigrithorax)

Doing your bit

As shooters spend a considerable amount of time outdoors, in areas rarely visited by others, they’re ideally placed to keep watch and report any sightings of invasive hornets. Keep an eye on the trees, as that’s where Asian hornets prefer to build their suspended nests. On a quiet day, you might be able to hear buzzing coming from the canopies.

Spring is the time to keep your heads pointed towards the skies as the invasive Asian hornets will begin to emerge from their winter slumber around April; however, they can appear earlier if weather conditions become favourable. Keep an eye on travelling queens – they are the ones we must eliminate. They will re-emerge to start the cycle of breeding and nest building, and that is the prime time to be on the lookout and setting those monitoring traps, too. One colony can produce up to 350 new queens, so it’s essential we find their nests before August/September, when the fertile females are born.

Monitoring is key – but be careful!

Spotting Asian hornets is absolutely crucial. But be careful, as these insects are aggressive and will often attack en masse.  This makes Asian hornets a real threat to gundogs and shooters, especially from July to November, when their secondary nests are active. These are often found in the undergrowth, in brambles and hedges, or high in the trees. The nests are well camouflaged and hard to spot until too late, so be vigilant. 

If you do stumble across an Asian hornet nest, we recommend:

  • Staying at least 5 metres away.
  • Put your dog on a lead.
  • Report the location to the National Bee Unit.
  • Under no circumstances shoot at the nest.

There is a lot of information about what to do when you spot an Asian hornet available on the NBU’s website. They also offer training and have a list of local co-ordinators (AHTs) available, here. You can also join their WhatsApp group to receive latest news on this invasive insect. 

Making live traps

You can find instructions on NBU’s website for making monitoring traps to catch hornets, which can be placed in sunny areas of your shoot or stalking grounds. Key is in the name – do not use a trap capable of killing the insects as this will be non-discriminatory and our native hornets and bees may become casualties. Traps should also have an exit way for non-target species so they can escape.

As shooters, you will already know that traps must be checked regularly, and the same principle applies to these – check them often, release non-target species and report and kill any trapped Asian hornets.

Asian hornet nest in tree

First reported cases of 2024

The first reported Asian hornet sighting of 2024 was in Ash, Kent. The hornet was found in a potting shed on Friday 8 March, which could suggest the individual was bred and born in the UK and overwintered here.

Animal and Plant Health Agency collected the insect that day and confirmed its identification. The hornet was found about 5 miles from where an Asian hornet nest was destroyed in 2023 (Canterbury). 

Further two cases followed on 20 and 21 March, with credible reports of lone Asian hornets being received by NBU. A bee inspector is monitoring the location in Preston, while a dead Asian hornet found in Romford has been taken to Fera Science lab for an official identification.

There have been six more sightings in April, including two Asian hornet queens found by the NBU in traps near Four Oaks, Kent on 22 and 24 April and a single hornet trapped in the same area on 13 April. Remaining cases were two sightings of Asian hornets on ferries and one in Folkestone, Kent.

These cases prove how important it is for all of us to be vigilant, even relatively early in the year, when we would expect hornets to still be in hibernation.

You can read a full report on this case on the NBU website.

Report sightings of invasive Asian hornet

For advice on what to do if you see an Asian hornet, visit the National Bee Unit or the GB Non-native Species Secretariat.

Visit the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) website for more details on the NBU’s, how you can help and what help is available to those wishing to join the fight against the Asian hornet. 

You can download a reporting app to make the process a lot quicker and simpler. Click here for more details.

Asian hornet

The Asian hornet factbox

  • The invasive and dangerous (yellow-legged) Asian hornet (Vespa velutina nigrithorax) arrived in the UK in 2016.

  • The first sighting of 2024 was recorded on 8 March in Ash, Kent.

  • In 2023, Asian hornet sightings were recorded 78 times, with more than 60 nests destroyed.

  • Asian hornets are overall black, with bright yellow legs and just a single yellow segment on the abdomen.

  • Asian hornets primarily hunt pollinators, such as honeybees, with their attacks often leading to entire colony collapse.

  • Shooters are ideally placed to keep watch and report any sightings of these invasive hornets.

  • Asian hornet queens will begin to emerge from hibernation around April, however, they can appear earlier if weather conditions become favourable.

  • One colony can produce up to 350 new queens, so their nests must be found before August/September when the fertile females are born.