The Asian Hornet: why the concern?

A destructive, and potentially dangerous, invasive insect has made its way to the UK.

An awareness campaign has been launched on a nationwide scale to educate people on how to spot it and report it.

First discovered in the UK in 2016, the yellow-legged Asian hornet has travelled to our shores from western Europe, where there are now over half a million nests annually in France alone.

By 2022, just 16 Asian Hornet nests had been discovered in this country. But in 2023, this increased dramatically to 72 nests in 56 different locations – more than in the previous six years combined. Kent and other counties along the south coast have been the most affected areas so far, but there have been sightings in locations across the country, including as far north as Scotland. There have already been confirmed sightings in March this year, a month earlier than in previous years, raising fears that they could become established here without an effort on an unprecedented scale to track, locate and destroy nests.

Yellow-legged Asian hornets have the capacity to wreak havoc on our wildlife in the UK, through their destruction of honey bee colonies, and their predation on a number of other insect species. Their habit of hovering outside bee hives stops the bees from going out to collect nectar and pollen to feed themselves.  Just one nest of hornets can consume up to around 11kg of insects in a year. This could have huge consequences on our wider ecology, with many beekeepers calling this the greatest threat to our native pollinators in a generation.

And there’s concern that the increasing numbers of yellow-legged Asian hornets could pose a significant risk to public health too. While one hornet alone is unlikely to cause a problem, they can be aggressively defensive of their nests, which can be built low to the ground and in hedgerows and brambles, meaning disturbances by unsuspecting individuals could have dangerous consequences.

On the Channel Island of Jersey, an army of volunteers has been brought together over the last seven years to cope with a situation that now sees hundreds of nests discovered every year. Some of these nests have even been found underground. There are a vast array of situations in which an unsuspecting member of the public could come into contact with a nest, so everyone needs to be made aware of this risk – and fast.

Yellow-legged Asian hornets can be identified by their very distinct markings: they’re slightly smaller than our native European hornet, which is two or three times the size of a common wasp, and are black with an orange face, a thin yellow band near the middle and a broader orange/yellow band around their abdomen, near their tail. The most distinguishing characteristic is their bright yellow legs, like they’ve been dipped in a pot of yellow paint – hence the name.

Any suspected sightings should be reported via the official Asian Hornet Watch app, along with a photo if possible. The app is available for both Android and iPhone devices. Experts from the Government’s National Bee Unit (NBU) will then be able to identify if there’s a nest nearby, and if so, destroy it.  Anyone who thinks they’ve discovered a nest should stay at least 10 metres away to keep themselves safe.

For more information, including the latest updates and ways in which you can help share awareness, take a look at the British Beekeeper’s Association website