Asian hornets survive UK winter for first time amid spike in sightings

Asian hornets could be here to stay in the UK after DNA testing confirmed they survived winter for the first time.

The invasive species, which has the scientific name vespa velutina, dismembers and eats bees and poses a threat to local pollinators and ecosystems.

They are thriving in France and there have been increasing reports in recent years of sightings in southern England.

Earlier this month the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said there was no solid evidence that the hornets stayed here over winter.

But testing by the government-backed National Bee Unit (NBU) has shown that three queen hornets caught at Four Oaks, East Sussex, are the offspring of a nest destroyed in nearby Rye in November 2023 – suggesting that the hornets are breeding in the UK.

However, the NBU said it would need to see evidence of a population of the creatures reproducing for a “significant” number of generations before classifying them as naturalised in the UK.

In 2016, the Asian hornet was discovered in the UK for the first time in Tetbury
In 2016, the Asian hornet was discovered in the UK for the first time in Tetbury (Getty Images)

The presence of the hornets was first confirmed for the first time in France back in 2004 when they were found in the southwestern region of Lot-et-Garonne.

They were believed to have been imported in a consigned of pottery from China and later spread to several regions in France.

In 2016, the Asian hornet was discovered in the UK for the first time, in Tetbury. The nest was found and destroyed after 10 days of intensive searching by authorities.

But there have been subsequent sightings with action taken to find and destroy nests.

In 2023 alone, the NBU said it destroyed 72 nests in 56 locations with the majority affected in Kent.

Eight sightings have been reported in the UK so far this year including three within one week in May. Most have been spotted in East Sussex and Kent.

All hornets found have been likely to be from the European population rather than a new incursion from Asia, the NBU added.

The hornets are, however, established in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Jersey.

They prey on a wide range of insects including honeybees and disrupt the ecological role they provide.

It has also altered the biodiversity in regions of France where it is present and can be a health risk to those who have allergies to hornet or wasp stings.

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