Beekeeping in July and serious concerns about the Asian Hornet

We’ve all heard of the phrase “famous last words” and these are now coming back to haunt me.  In my last blog I was saying how fantastic the weather had been, that the bees were booming and we’d had lots of honey from of the spring nectar flow.  By early June the bramble had started to flower so the “June gap” looked unlikely.  However, July has been a bit of a disappointment.  The summer flow should have been well under way by now but the wind, rain and cool temperatures have kept the bees confined to quarters and the blossom has been reluctant to yield its nectar.  So we take the good years with the bad and this year is looking like there will be less surplus honey for the beekeeper.  Let’s hope things warm up as we go further into summer.

The Threat of Asian Hornets

I usually like to keep this blog upbeat but there is something we need to bring to public awareness.  I’m sure you will already have seen this on the television or read about it in the media but here is a timely reminder.  Honey bees and all pollinating insects could be at risk from an exotic pest arriving on our shores. The non-native Asian Hornet (Vespa Velutina) is an invasive species originating from Asia.  It has already colonised many countries in Europe and is presenting a significant cost to both the ecology and economy of these countries and is now being sighted here in the UK.

The hornets start off by attacking bees outside their hive.  The hornets fly to a nearby branch and dismember the bee leaving just the thorax which is taken back to their nest to be eaten.  Once the bee colony has lost its defence the hornets will enter the hive to eat any brood and honey.  The bees get too scared to leave the hive and so it finally dwindles.  An entire apiary can be wiped out in a very short time.  But it isn’t only honeybees it is all bees that are at risk.  The situation is very serious.

In September 2016, there was the first confirmed sighting of the Asian hornet in the Tetbury area of Gloucestershire – the nest was located and destroyed by government officials working for the National Bee Unit.  There have been further sightings each year since then and again the NBU has managed to track and trace the hornets to their nests and dispose of them.  However it is only a matter of time before this hornet gets a foothold in the UK.

The Asian Hornet is not a pollinator and has no redeeming features at all.  That is why the Non Native Species Secretariat has to be informed.  The bee inspectors visit areas where they are reported to find the nests which can take days.  Primary nests in early spring are small, started by the queen who raises enough brood for her to be able to feed herself.  As the nest grows and more workers are available they then re-locate to a secondary nest usually high up in a tree.  Each nest can have up to 6,000 hornets and emit over 350 queens.  Only a small number of the queens will make it through winter but you can see how quickly they can spread.

What to look out for

  • Vespa velutina queens are up to 30 mm in length; workers up to 25 mm (slightly smaller than the native European hornet Vespa crabro)
  • Mostly black body except for its 4th abdominal segment which is a yellow band located towards the rear.
  • It has characteristic yellow legs which accounts for why it is often called the yellow legged hornet
  • Face is orange with two brownish red compound eyes
  • Vespa velutina is a day-flying species which, unlike the European hornet, ceases activity at dusk

As we move into August and September this is the ideal time when you may see Asian Hornets.  They are attracted to things like over-ripe windfall fruit, flowering ivy and of course honey bee hives.

If you see an Asian Hornet

Never disturb an active nest. Sightings of the Asian Hornet must be reported to Non-Native Species Secretariat  with a photograph and location details.  There is a handy Asian Hornet Watch app that you can download onto your phone through the app store.

Each year there are thousands of false reports in the UK which is why they need a photograph or a body to positively identify the species.  There just isn’t the resources to send inspectors to every reported sighting.  Beekeeping Associations are helping with identifications.  The larger nests look very much like wasp nests but the difference is there are entrances all the way around the sides of the nest where the hornets fly in and out.  A wasp nest just has the entrance at the bottom.

If you are unsure try to take a photograph and contact Newbury and District Beekeepers Association www.newburybeekeepers.org.uk and we will be able to identify the photograph for you.

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