Killer spiders and marauding Asian hornets threaten England, but for our bees the danger is closer to home
Killer spiders are in the news in Dorset and a horde of hornets with a nasty sting in their tail are heading across the Channel from France to Britain.
But for Wells bees the problem is a lot closer to home, writes Lynda Ogborne.
Watching the beehives in the old Mendip Hospital Cemetery one sunny October day, I saw a wasp trying to get into a hive. Bee and wasp tumbled together to the ground, locked in mortal combat. Unequally matched the bee will die after releasing its sting but the stinging wasp might live to sting again.
And as if this summer’s wasp-armies were not enough, marauding European hornets, Vespa crabro, are now crawling round outside the hives. At more than twice the size of honeybees they can sting again and again when provoked. Hornets are carnivorous, the gardener’s friend in spring by eating grubs and insect pests, but in autumn, on the hunt for sugar, they target fruit crops in orchards and domestic honeybee hives.
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But our European hornets are not as threatening as the Asian hornet, Vespa velutina. Originating in China it is smaller but more aggressive than its European cousins and has been spreading rapidly from France since the accidental import of one queen in 2004. Scientists fear it could arrive in England, breed rapidly and devastate honeybee colonies. (Vespa velutina is not to be confused with the Giant Asian hornet, Vespa mandarinia, currently causing injuries in China and making headlines here.)
So our honeybees are agitated and we must be vigilant. It is a tense time for Meg as she makes a final adjustment to the bees’ winter food store, the daylight shortens and we move through autumn towards the winter months.
Did you know?
Although aggressive in groups when defending their nest, if slowly approached an individual European hornet it is more likely to crawl backwards and flee rather than attack.
Meanwhile The false widow spider is tormenting gardeners in Dorset, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) warns the hornets could spread over the UK.
A DEFRA statement said these “invasive and predatory” insects have “spread very quickly to many areas of France where it is reported to be causing many problems for both beekeepers and biodiversity in the country. The hornet can predate on bee colonies, causing significant harm.”
The bee-eating invaders, which can grow up to 1.2 inches long, are a threat to UK wildlife – preying on wasps and other pollinators as well as honeybees – and perhaps even human health, warns a recent report from the European Environment Agency (EEA).
Over the past few years, several attacks on humans have been reported in France. In 2009, hundreds of the insects attacked a mother out walking with her five-month old baby in the Lot-et-Garonne department, before turning on a neighbour who ran over to help. They then pursued two passers-by and two Dutch tourists on bikes.